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TV can’t tell us what it’s really like to live on benefits

A single parent receiving out-of-work benefits was recently dubbed “Britain’s most shameless mum”, after her appearance on the This Morning couch. Cheryl Prudham attracted the wrath of presenter Holly Willoughby, who asked how she could continue to sleep at night, given how much she received in benefits for herself and her 12 children.

We know very little about Prudham, about her day-to-day life, her circumstances and the reasons why she receives state support. But this did not stop the rush to judge, criticise and find her behaviour morally problematic.

Worse, we are quick to take individual cases such as Prudham’s as an example of wider problems with our benefit system: politicians and media outlets often suggest that it encourages a culture of “welfare dependency”, where claimants passively “languish” on state support.

Poverty porn

In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rapid rise of television shows that invite viewers into the lives of people living on benefits: poverty has been repackaged as popular entertainment, which some have labelled “poverty porn”.

Shows such as Benefits Street, and appearances by individuals like Prudham provide a highly edited, sensationalised picture of what it’s like to receive out-of-work benefits. They pick out extreme cases, and hold them up as examples of a supposedly failing benefits system.

What they do not – and arguably, cannot – do is provide a detailed account of the lives of out-of-work benefits recipients, capturing what “getting by” on benefits in Britain today entails. This became the aim of an in-depth study we carried out into the experiences of out-of-work benefit claimants who are affected by welfare reform.

One of the most remarkable things we found was that claimants often refer to themselves in the same negative terms used by politicians and the media. One of our participants, Sam – a young care leaver on Jobseeker’s Allowance – described herself as “scrounging”, even though she was actively seeking employment.

When asked to explain why she felt that she was a “scrounger”, Sam highlighted the role of television shows such as Jeremy Kyle, which regularly features benefit claimants who Kyle is quick to censure for their “welfare dependency”. Sam explained:

This is random but Jeremy Kyle, people going and spending money on drugs and stuff like that, and he keeps complaining about ‘oh, so it’s tax payers’ money that’s paying for all your drugs and this and that and the other’, which kind of makes me feel a bit ashamed, even though I don’t do it. So like I say, onto a job and then I can get that feeling of being ashamed off me and them I’m all right then.

Many of the claimants described the stigma and shame that they associated with their receipt of benefits, and how this affected their daily lives. James, a young jobseeker, explained:

I feel like a bum. I feel useless. When you’re walking around the streets … everybody knows that you’re not a worker because you’re out and about through the day so you feel worthless … You feel like some people are looking at you as if to say ‘he’s taking the piss, he’s another one that just sits about and does nowt’.

Not a lifestyle choice

While the people in this study sometimes internalised the negative public image of benefit claimants, they were also very resistant to popular depictions of benefits as a “lifestyle choice”.

The participants commonly rubbished this idea. They questioned why individuals would choose the poverty, difficult decisions and lack of resources which made up their daily lives. Instead, they would point to the difficult circumstances which had led them to receive out-of-work benefits. Sophie, a single parent, said “it’s just the way that things have happened – we don’t choose to live on benefits, we don’t want to live on benefits”.

Likewise, Dan – a disabled man with a history of spells in and out of work – described how he saw his life on benefits:

It ain’t a life choice, you don’t want to be living like that. It’s like a pigeon, innit, you’re just there – pick, pick, pick – and that’s it really. You’re just existing.

So, research into the experience of living on benefits shows that claimants see benefit receipt in negative ways, and sometimes even use derogatory terms such as “scrounger” to describe themselves. When people like Prudham are condemned in the media as “shameless”, it reinforces the idea that there is something “shameful” about claiming benefits.

A fairer and more socially just social security system would seek to banish shame and stigma from the benefits system. Rather than stereotyping claimants as “irresponsbile” and “undeserving”, welfare provision should be underpinned by principles of respect, dignity and equality. Sadly, so long as the media and politicians continue to stigmatise – and even demonise – those on benefits, this does not appear a likely prospect.

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