It’s hard to imagine a road in Britain more ordinary than James Turner Street in the Birmingham suburb of Soho.
But a Channel 4 TV show has unleashed a storm of scapegoating and demonisation upon it, branding it “Benefits Street”.
There have been arrests, a stream of journalists and photographers and even death threats against the people the show portrayed as “scroungers”.
Residents feel betrayed by the company, Love Productions, which had approached them on a very different basis.
“They made that show absolutely hideous,” beauty student Amy told Socialist Worker. “They told us it would be a show about community but it’s not.”
Dan, who also lives on the street, works in the public sector. “They did interviews with people who are working—and they cut all that out,” he said.
“They told people on benefits that it would look at the real difficulties they face. Instead it’s presented this whole street the wrong way.”
The programme has unleashed a torrent of abuse and speculation.
“It’s all bullshit,” said Marie, a pensioner who has lived on the street her whole life.
“I read in the paper today that ‘Benefits Street’ is full of arson. What arson?”
Graduate Jerry added, “What did the most damage is when they said the prison was like a second home for us. I don’t know everyone, but no one I know has been to prison.”
James Turner Street houses a very mixed group of people. It includes workers, students, pensioners and small business owners, as well as people who are out of work.
There are also people with long term health problems that stop them from working—not “scroungers” as the backlash has portrayed them as.
Others have faced layoffs from their bosses, cuts from the government and now demonisation too.
“I never wanted to sign on, but what choice do we have?” asked single parent Liz. “I’ve worked as a sewing machinist, a warehouse packer, a care assistant. I’ve done a bit of cleaning. But through no fault of my own I’ve been made redundant.”
The life of people like Liz is anything but luxury.
“The money they give you is a pittance,” she told Socialist Worker. “I have to pay the gas, the electric, and now they want me to pay council tax, but with what? I already don’t smoke—but the way things are going I’ll have to give up meat.
“I can’t afford clothes. Now my son’s turned 18 we’ve enrolled him in a training course to be a plumber. The fees cost £3,000. We could lose our home because of the debt that’s put us in.”
The talk in the Acorn Inn around the corner is of benefit claimants being allowed to feel a “sense of entitlement”.
But people face a daunting amount of scrutiny just to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance.
“They say they’ll do everything to help you go where you want to go, but they don’t really give you much help at all,” said Mr Miah, returning from a job interview.
“I worked for 36 years as a machine operator before being made redundant for the first time last year. I was on Jobseeker’s Allowance.
“But they’ve stopped giving me money now and said I had to get a job.”
DJ and shop worker Merci said, “There are no jobs out there and for every little thing now the Jobcentre tries to sanction you. That means you’ve got no money for a month, or for three months. What are you supposed to do then?
“Our money stays in one place and everything else goes up. It’s hard and it’s going to get harder.”
Merci is angry with the programme makers for helping the government blame unemployed people for its own failures.
“The government is making it worse,” he said. “They are doing nothing for the youngsters, there are no more clubs or centres for them to go to. I used to be a youth worker, but the place is closed down now.
“I work at Tesco but now all the shops are closing. There are 200 people applying for every job—so how are you supposed to get a job? I’ve gone to interviews and had them just look at my postcode and say forget it.”
Unemployment is not caused by people being lazy. It is created by the bosses, who rely on a “reserve army of labour” to try to keep wages down. Bourgeois economists even talk about a “natural” rate of unemployment.
But there is nothing natural about their system. And demonising the victims only lets the real culprits off the hook.
“The system is made this way so that you have no choice but to ask them for something,” concluded Liz. “I don’t like that. It feels like a trap. And people looking at you like you’re filth just because you’re unemployed doesn’t help.”
'They lied to us from the very beginning'
The first episode of Benefits Street showed Dee Roberts pointing at houses where people were unemployed or on benefits. But programme makers edited out the houses where she said people were working.
“They lied to us from the very beginning. We opened our doors and hearts to them and they violated us and abused our trust,” she told the local press.
Nikita Bell is now a full-time beautician, but when the show was filmed she was looking for work. “They only showed the part with us laughing to make it look like it was all a big joke,” she said. “They have betrayed me and everyone else.”
Mark Thomas and Becky Howe, a couple with two young children, were demonised more than almost anyone else.
“Half of my family and friends have already disowned me because of it,” said Becky. “Some want me to change my name on Deed Poll. We might be on benefits but everyone has got to start somewhere.”
As well as making a lot of villains, Benefits Street turned Stephen “Smoggy” Smith into a hero.
Since it broadcast him selling portions of household goods to people who couldn’t afford full-size packets, he’s been celebrated on social media.
But even that feelgood story was almost wiped out when Stephen’s benefits were cut for not doing enough to find a job.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “They are stopping people trying to better themselves. I was forced to go to my family for handouts.”
There is no underclass in Britain
Benefits Street relies on the myth that there is a separate underclass of people permanently out of work on benefits.
In reality there isn’t an iron wall between benefit claimants and workers. Many workers claim benefits because their wages are so low.
And most people who are unemployed have worked in the past and have family members in work.
They are a part of the working class, not separate from it.
So it’s true that the Soho area in Birmingham has a higher than average concentration of unemployed people. But just one in ten working age residents claim Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Even fewer claim a long term sickness benefit.
Barely a quarter of working age Soho residents claim any benefits at all, including some workers.
There are more than twice as many employed workers as there are people out of work.
And almost 60 percent of Soho residents who claim Jobseeker’s Allowance have done so for less than a year.
Residents reject attacks on 'foreigners'
TV often uses piled-up rubbish as shorthand for the feckless poor. And in the current climate, nothing sells like an immigration scare.
So the Benefits Street producers must have thought they were onto a winner with their second episode focusing on Roma immigrants rooting through binbags.
James Turner Street does have a rubbish problem, but it isn’t the residents’ fault. On the day of the council refuse collection it’s tidy—but the rubbish bags quickly pile up as there are no wheelie bins.
“I’m concerned about the rubbish, but it’s not helpful to make it about ‘foreigners’,” said Mr Miah. “After all, I am a ‘foreigner’ myself.”
Alf, a white pensioner, said, “I don’t know why they do people down for being foreigners. Our neighbours come from the Middle East and they are the nicest people you could ask to meet.
“That’s what we were told this programme was going to be about—the mixture of people here and how well we all get on.”