THE Channel 4 series Benefits Street is a reality TV show based on a Birmingham street where, according to the programme makers, 90% of the residents live on benefits.
It portrays them, essentially, as crooks who are manipulating the benefits system in order to avoid work and who spend the day smoking, drinking, shoplifting and watching very large television sets.
It is hard to watch this programme and not feel a sense of outrage - not least at the producers, Love Productions, for pandering to prejudice. Not much love lost there. The naive residents of James Turner Street say they were told they were part of a film about community spirit.
But Benefits Street is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand how attitudes to the welfare state have changed in Britain. It is a bit like the Ken Loach drama Cathy Come Home in reverse. That programme reflected public concern about homelessness in the 1960s when the welfare state was still seen as a great social achievement.
Benefits Street - along with shows like the drama Shameless, which also vilifies the unemployed - mark what may be the end of that welfare consensus. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, the number of people who think the Government should spend more on poverty has halved since 1987.
And it's not just got up by the Daily Mail. A surprising number of people who work with the benefits underclass also believe the system must change. One of them is John Bird, founder of the Big Issue magazine sold by the homeless. He says the current system locks people into poverty by giving them no incentive to work. Which only shows that, sometimes, the people closest to a social problem may not be the best judges of the nature of it.
For the premise of the current debate is that benefits are in some way generous to the unemployed. In fact, the reverse is the case. Britain's Jobseeker's Allowance is among the lowest in Europe, at £71 a week. In Ireland, unemployment benefit is three times that; in Denmark, it's five times as much. I don't understand how Jobseeker's Allowance can be regarded as a disincentive to work when it barely enough to live on.
And for young adults under 25, the benefit rate is only £56 a week. Low benefits are one of the reasons so many young people like Danny in Benefits Street end up shoplifting and getting caught in the prison system - which, of course, makes it almost impossible to get a job.
Are we seriously to believe that the one million unemployed young people in Britain are workshy? Of course not - there just aren't enough jobs.
The Conservatives also want to deny housing benefit entirely to those under 25 - which discriminates unreasonably against young people. If ever there were an answer to Russell Brand's claim that voting is a waste of time, this is it. Pensioners vote, and they get a triple lock and annual increases; young people don't vote, and they lose housing benefit and get year-on-year cuts.
So why are people in Britain so much more hostile to the unemployed than voters in France, Germany, Spain - which all pay much higher social security rates and don't seem worried about being invaded by benefits tourists from Romania and Bulgaria?
Well, part of the answer is housing benefit, which costs the UK nearly £25 billion a year. Remember, though, that this doesn't go into the pockets of the poor but to landlords. This is where the real poverty trap occurs because Britain's housing crisis has made owning or renting a home prohibitively expensive. But I don't see how we can really blame the poor for house-price inflation, which has turned hundreds of thousands of people in the south of England into property millionaires.
And can it really be fair to vilify people on housing benefit when the UK Government is using £130bn to fund the mortgages of people rich enough to buy £600,000 houses under the Help to Buy scheme? Not to mention the tens if not hundreds of billions in public money handed to bankers as a reward for nearly destroying the financial syste? How about a Bonus Street about the life and times of City of London crooks?
Make no mistake: benefit bashing
sells newspapers and it buys votes, which is why the Chancellor, George Osborne says he intends to cut the welfare bill by a further £12bn. But how? Half of the £200bn benefits bill goes to pensioners, and is ring-fenced and inflation-proofed. Most of the rest goes on disability benefits, attendance allowance (in England) and child benefits - much of it to people in work.
The largest category of benefit claimants after pensioners is not the unemployed, but the four million who are working in jobs that pay too little to live on. Not much skiving there.
Child benefit is already being cut for the better-off worker. People on disability benefits are being hit already with stringent tests of their ability to work.
Contrary to popular belief, spending on unemployment benefit, Jobseeker's Allowance, is only 3% of the total spending on welfare - around £6bn, and it is falling as unemployment falls. Very little scope for cuts here - though George Osborne is thought to be planning to freeze all benefits except pensions for three years.
I suspect that Osborne will not resort to the more draconian measures on benefit but will allow the economic recovery to reduce the benefits bill, as it invariably does, and then claim credit for it.
His call for £12bn in welfare cuts is a political tactic designed to make Labour look like the scrounger's friend. Such is the public mood that bashing Benefits Street is now the surest way to gain political popularity.
This also explains why the Government is persevering with the bedroom tax despite its manifest unfairness.
The UK Government wants welfare organisations and opposition politicians to be outraged because it makes it look as if the Tories really are being tough on welfare. The "spare room supplement" is a transparent attempt to cut benefits by the back door - or rather the bedroom door - by forcing people who have no alternative but to pay extra for their two- bed council flat.
Scots have traditionally been less hostile to benefit claimants because earnings are lower here and people understand that they're only a redundancy away from Benefits Street themselves - though it should be noted that the Coalition's benefits cap is just as popular north of the Border as south. Voters in the south of England have, over the last 30 years, absorbed much of the neoliberal, anti-state mentality of American politics, which is why they vote Tory and Ukip.
The welfare state and universal benefits used to be one of the great unifying factors holding Great Britain together. It spoke of collective security, dignity, equality of opportunity. But like the Barnett Formula, Europe, immigration and the NHS, welfare is being changed in ways that Scots may not find congenial.
As The Guardian's Martin Kettle observed last week, the props of the old United Kingdom are being kicked away. How long before the edifice collapses?
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