Last night's viewing: What did this Benefits Britain 1949 say about today's benefits system? Nothing.

Benefits Britain 1949, Channel 4

“Benefits culture” in Britain seems to be as much a topic of conversation as the weather these days, from the so-called “scroungers” in council flats to the imagined hordes of immigrants forming untidy queues at the dole office and the bedroom tax protestors. Everyone’s got an opinion on what’s gone wrong. Maybe that is why Benefits Britain 1949 tried to enliven the discussion by coming at it from a different angle. Three volunteers became subject to the benefits system of 1949, which based its recently devised welfare principles on the rule that it would provide “help to those who were prepared to help themselves”. Their 2013 allowance was replaced by what they would have got (accounting for inflation) in 1949 money.

Melvyn, a stoic pensioner, was forced to turn in over £100 a week for £5.49 a day; Karen, who had worked for 22 years but was now on sickness benefit, fell under a similarly draconian reduction, and Craig, a wheelchair user with spina bifida from birth, was the most vulnerable for his lack of NI contributions, though he got the reprieve of a training course allowance.

In fact, the 1949 system left them all vulnerable: Melvyn was forced to live on paltry amounts of food with no fruit  or vegetables in a lifestyle that a GP said would kill him in two years. We saw him tearfully pawning his grandfather’s watch to pay his bills after stern words from the po-faced benefits officer of 1949: Karen was forced to defend her  illnesses, which, acute as they might have been, were  largely invisible, while Craig’s disability left him fighting for a job (an occupational therapist told us why certain kinds of movements at a garden centre he was training at were not good for him, though it is doubtful that the 1949 system would have much cared for OT).

In the end, this documentary made for increasingly queasy viewing. More and more, it felt as if the benefits debate had been dressed up in the clothes of reality TV – or perhaps vice versa. At times, it appeared to verge on the exploitative, particularly when Melvyn left the room after filling up with tears at the memory of his wife’s death, whereupon the camera followed him into the bedroom where he lay bawling. Even Craig’s  success story – he got the first job offer of his life – had an edge. If he hadn’t got it, he’d be left high and dry as 1949’s welfare state “judged people on job prospects not need”.

The obvious quickly became apparent: that the prevailing social values of 1949 were radically different from ours. Melvyn’s neighbours would be called on to help him back then and save him from the nursing home to where he was eventually sent (isn’t that just as onerous on state resources?). Yet it doesn’t take the brightest of sparks to understand that notions of community have changed, particularly since Thatcherism’s attack on the notion of society. Half of all pensioners survived on  or below the poverty line in 1949 because of state paranoia over the cost of elderly care, so they weren’t exactly cared  for humanely. Then again, definitions of humanity change over time. What seems cruel today seemed caring then.

So what was the point being made here? Only that the welfare system, at its inception, measured “welfare” with a different moral yardstick. Britain had, let’s remind ourselves, come freshly come out of a war. There was immense pressure to reconstruct and to find a willing workforce to do so. The premise of this show seemed irresponsible and ill-thought-out. It was a bit like devising a show that put today’s mentally ill – those with bipolar, schizophrenics, anorexics and bulimics – into 19th-century’s Bedlam to see how they would fair in a pre-Freudian, pre-RD Laing era.

What did this first episode say about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the benefits system today? Nothing. Are we supposed to be grateful that it’s all so different now? Hardly.

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