Benefits Street returns: The myth that’s worth hitting

It might seem like grim viewing but, actually, it’s pure escapism

Ellen E. Jones
Sunday 14 September 2014 12:53
Once again, our depiction - and understanding - of those on benefits is wrong
Once again, our depiction - and understanding - of those on benefits is wrong

Ordinarily, I’d file a research paper debunking the myth of “poverty as a lifestyle choice” under “The Bleedin’ Obvious”, along with studies demonstrating that chocolate tastes nice and dog faeces don’t. On this occasion, however, the findings published in the journal Sociological Research merit more discussion. That’s because one of the communities featured in the study is also the setting for the second series of Channel 4’s controversial Benefits Street. We’ll likely be talking “welfare ghettos” for months to come, whether we like it or not.

Sociologists have interviewed 20 families (47 people in total) in Teesside and Glasgow, two areas where unemployment rates are among Britain’s highest. If that sample seems small, it’s not for lack of trying. Researchers were hoping to study the communities described in a 2011 speech by Iain Duncan Smith as having “no interest in work” because “they have seen their parents, their neighbours and their entire community sit on benefits for life”. After eight months of searching, they came up empty-handed. “Yes, these are areas where there are high levels of joblessness, but most people are still in jobs,” said Robert MacDonald, a professor of sociology at Teesside University. “It’s not getting beyond 30 per cent or 40 per cent at most, which calls into question this idea of entire neighbourhoods cut off from jobs.”

Unemployment is a reality but it’s not a family trade, in which son follows father into the dole queue, as he followed his father before him. You may come across some shiftless individuals who believe the world owes them a living – several were handily showcased for us in the first Benefits Street series – but this description does not fit the majority of people who find themselves underpaid or unemployed. Rather, it’s a character type that is evenly distributed among all social groups. Including MPs who, it was reported last week, claimed more on expenses in 2013/14 than at the height of 2009’s expenses scandal. The shiftless bastards.

Let the sociological studies pile up. Mere facts don’t stand a chance against a fiction so comforting it has lasted since the Victorian era, been reborn in the policies of IDS and is now drawing in a crowd on television. The myth of the lazy poor persists because it makes people feel better. Everyone wants to believe they deserve their good fortune – and that other people’s misfortune is down to their “something-for-nothing culture”. Benefits Street might seem like grim viewing but, actually, it’s pure escapism.

Saved by the hecklers

For this disinterested Londoner, observing Westminster’s desperate attempts to retain power over Scotland is like sitting in the audience of an embarrassingly bad stand-up gig, saved at the last minute by creative hecklers. In this case, the hecklers are those members of the Scottish public who’ve been interrupting the guy on the podium – be he on the street, in a debating hall or on Twitter – and to great effect.

There was the man who heralded a train-full of Labour MPs in Glasgow, by shouting “Welcome to our imperial overlords!” and playing the “Imperial Death March” from Star Wars through a speaker on his bike. Hooray for him. And there were the bored teenagers at the BBC’s The Big, Big Debate who used the suggested hashtag to ridicule George Galloway’s hat.

No-campaign supporter Piers Morgan has been driven half to distraction on Twitter by relentless Glaswegian insults: “Since I’ve no idea what a ‘bawbag’ or ‘bampot’ is,” he huffed last week, “there’s little point in you Yes campaigners deploying these particular epithets at me.”

In Scotland, they used to define a gentleman as “someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, but doesn’t”. Let’s revise: a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the ‘bawbags’ and does it to perfection.

Tip of the iceberg

Ever heard of LeSean McCoy? No, me neither, but suffice to say he’s a big player in America’s NFL and also a big player in the downfall of their broken tipping system.

European visitors to the States are often mystified by a service culture that demands tips for bartenders, taxi drivers, parking valets and, most especially, waiting staff – who get an extra 20 per cent as standard.

In Europe, tipping tends to be a way of acknowledging service that goes above and beyond. In America, it’s a supplement to low service industry wages. The amount you give is less a reflection of the server’s hospitality, and more a reflection of your human decency. No one wants to be a “bad tipper”.

The mistake made by our new friend McCoy was to leave a 20 cent tip on a meal costing $61.56, because, he said, the service was bad. The restaurant tried to shame him by posting a picture of this receipt on Facebook and thus ignited a public debate.

Should a customer have the right to put a value on good service? Or is the sports star, who earns $9m (£5.5m) a year, just being cheap? From here the solution is obvious: Pay football players less, pay service staff more, and leave tips to the discretion of the customer.

Not in front of the children

“We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Not the words of some hippy-dippy attachment parent living on a low-tech Devon commune, but of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. According to an article in The New York Times last week the tech-guru’s children were not even allowed iPads.

Jobs’ sentiments echo those of British American Tobacco boss David Crow, who has said he discourages his own children from smoking: “It’s bad for you. It says it on the pack”. They also chime with every other healthy-eating fast food exec and sober bartender whose lifestyle doesn’t match the one they’re flogging. These guys knew enough not to get high on their own supply. That should tell us something.

A hi-tech storm

Speaking of Apple, our future global overlords proved their power last week by downloading U2’s new album to 500 million iTunes subscribers. Mercifully, there are still powers greater than Apple in the Universe. Scientists warn the two solar storms forecast this week can “disrupt power-grids, radio and satellite communications” and, with any luck, also wipe your iPhone clean of dirgy soft-rock ballads.

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