In preparation for my interview to become the new Poverty Media Unit Co-ordinator for Church Action on Poverty, I watched a couple of episodes of the first series of Benefits Street.
I decided that the problem with programmes like this isn’t so much the way the programme has been edited; it’s the fact that these programmes give implied permission to label those featured, to assume they are representative of all people living in poverty and receiving benefits. They allow policy-makers to treat these stories as evidence that strategies are needed to combat ‘reliance on benefits’ as a life-style choice.
Since starting on 1 September, I have yet to meet anyone for whom their life in poverty or their reliance on benefits is a ‘lifestyle choice’. (All names have been changed in the stories that follow.)
Julie is a single mum of a 12-year-old daughter. She has been receiving JobSeeker’s Allowance and other benefits. She recently managed to get a job that was 12 hours per week. She was delighted, and when she went to her next appointment at Job Centre Plus she couldn’t wait to share her good news. They ended up sanctioning her because she had failed to find 16 hours’ work per week. She is now worse off having found paid work than if she hadn’t found any at all. Merry Christmas!
Fred has mobility difficulties due to health problems and is in receipt of various benefits. He has lived in the same house for 44 years, but recently has become subject to the ‘Bedroom Tax’. After paying this and his other bills, he is left with just £10 per week for food. He is not able to eat properly, and his health is suffering.
Sharon is in her fifties and has had her housing benefit limited by the ‘Bedroom Tax’. For Sharon, this additional drain on her limited income has meant she cannot afford to pay for internet access. She feels isolated, angry and frustrated that she has had to make this choice. As she points out, people tend to assume everyone has access to email – when she is asked for her email address she feels discriminated against and unable to participate.
Over the next three years, the Poverty Media Unit will work with people who have direct experience of poverty, supporting them to challenge the stigma they face and to contribute to the public debate on UK poverty.
I have already begun working with a number of groups, and we will use both digital media and traditional media to dispel the myth of poverty and benefits as a lifestyle choice, and to challenge society, the media and those in power to resist the temptation to use simplified and demeaning labels that lead to discrimination and negative public attitudes.
Policy needs to be based on the real story, and we will support those experiencing poverty to tell their stories and be heard.
In the coming months we will be asking you to actively help us tell these stories.
If you have a story that needs to be heard please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0161 236 9321.