The Channel 4 series Benefit Street continues to attract plenty of comment. The complaint that what is shown in the programme is “selective” is pretty banal. That must apply to any TV documentary. I have already noted that there is also some good news for James Turner Street in Birmingham. One example is that the local school has become an Oasis academy – the trust run by Rev Steve Chalke. The basis for Oasis is that for their schools to succeed they need to concern themselves with the wider community – the sort of homes their pupils return to. They put far more stress on that aspect than most Local Authority-run “community” schools.
It doesn’t seem to have been the local councillors that have been pulling the community together amidst the controversy of the media circus that has ensued but Mr Chalke and Emma Johnson, the Principal of the Oasis Academy Foundry.
Certainly some residents in James Turner Street have let themselves down in their comments and behaviour and bitterly regret allowing themselves to be filmed doing so. Channel 4 have been blamed for “demonising” them and there has been some angry responses both locally and on Twitter.
However the main reflection from Conservatives has been to blame the system. That far from “helping” people benefits dependency ruins their lives – it traps them in poverty, distorts their moral judgments, erodes their independence and respect. The Benefits Street series has shown all this but more hearteningly has also shown evidence of the resilience of the human spirit even when faced with such odds.
In the Daily Mail this morning, Dominic Sandbrook writes:
It would be abominable to sweep the issues of unemployment and poverty under the carpet, or simply to tranquillise the poor with benefits, as though they were a sub-human underclass to be patronised and ignored.
Of course there is no magic wand that can bring back full employment. Even so, perhaps Britain’s schoolchildren (and, indeed, our politicians) should be encouraged to study an American government pamphlet produced during the Great Depression, at exactly the same time that George Orwell was visiting Wigan.
‘What happens to us when we are on the dole?’ it asked rhetorically. ‘We lose our self-respect. We lose our skill. We have family rows. We loaf on street corners. Finally we lose hope. ‘Now,’ it continued, ‘let’s look at what work does for us. WORK KEEPS US FROM GOING NUTS.’
Those words were written in 1936, but they are as true today as ever.
Mr Sandbrook wants more vocational education, noting the lower level of youth unemployment in Germany.
In The Spectator, this week, Fraser Nelson says:
The biggest scandal of Benefits Street, which Channel 4 is unlikely to reveal, is that White Dee is behaving rationally in deciding not to work. This is not something ministers like to divulge, but Policy in Practice, a welfare and employment consultancy, has run the figures for The Spectator. Dee is a single mother with two young children. Were she to earn, say, £90 a week as a cleaner, then the system would reduce her benefits by £70 — an effective tax rate of 78 per cent on that £90 she’s earned. She’d thus be slaving away all week for £20 — far less than the minimum wage. It doesn’t get too much better higher up the scale — a £350-a-week job leaves her a pathetic £35 a week better off. If she landed a £23,000-a-year job, she’d be just £2,100 a year better off than if she’d spent the year sitting on the sofa watching daytime TV and chatting to her pals on the street. This is nothing to do with indolence. Which of us would work at a 91 per cent tax rate?
Mr Nelson notes that Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will change that – “lowering the top effective tax rate to 65 per cent.” Still far too high, of course, but lower than 91 per cent. Cutting tax for the low paid is also helping.
Making work financially rewarding will not be the whole answer. Daniel Finkelstein writes in The Times(£):
It may be wrong, it is wrong, to expect hard-working people to finance the errors of others, the bad partners they choose or their turn to drink or crime. Yet saying that isn’t enough. Because it also seems wrong just to leave those people to make those mistakes and blight the lives of their families and their communities.
Yes, the State is helping to trap people in poverty, a system that costs billions while still failing. Yet at the same time, for the people filmed by Channel 4 the immediate problem was much more the absence of the State than its presence. The failure to clear the rubbish from the street, for example. Or the terrible, shaming, failure to protect the Romanian workers from exploitation, with the police able to do nothing and the immigrants forced to flee for their lives.
Paying people money to do nothing much is neither right nor sustainable. However, watching residents struggle to understand the terms of their rental agreement or how to avoid eviction, and seeing them turn to others for assistance who are almost as deficient in understanding as they are, it is made obvious that these people need more help as well as less help.
Lord Finkelstein is on to something. But he should not despair. There is some progress on this aspect as well – for instant in the involvement of Mr Chalke in the schools, noted above, and the Troubled Families initiative.
Labour have adopted a “shoot the messenger” approach. Their solution is to take the series off the airwaves. For Conservatives the response is not to blame the individuals but indignation at the system.