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Why being caught in the benefits trap is no laughing matter


 Tough times: White Dee from 

Channel 4's Benefits Street

Tough times: White Dee from Channel 4's Benefits Street

Tough times: White Dee from Channel 4's Benefits Street

I've only ever seen one bit of one episode of Benefits Street. The one with the Romanian migrant workers. Actually it was genuinely moving stuff. The focus that week was on a group of Romanian men brought to Britain with the promise that they'd all get jobs with fair pay.

Instead they found themselves working all hours for a pittance from which they were then expected to pay living costs in an overcrowded terrace in the now infamous James Turner Street.

These poor souls' story was interwoven with glimpses of other residents of the street, some of whom are now such household names (thanks to additional media coverage), that they're probably in with a chance of starring in the next series of Celebrity Big Brother. Not everyone is a fan of these new Street stars, needless to say.

According to reports this week there have now been hundreds of complaints to Ofcom about the series, specifically one episode which featured scenes of shoplifting which some viewers found offensive. There have also been complaints about bad language and drug-taking while some who took part in the show claim they have been unfairly portrayed.

The show describes itself as a documentary but really it's just more of the familiar worn format that is reality TV, aimed (as, in fairness, most TV programmes are these days) at pulling in as big an audience as is terrestrially possible. Benefits Street has been Channel 4's most impressive ratings winner in recent memory.

The station grandly says: "It is a sympathetic, humane and objective portrayal of how people are coping with continuing austerity and cuts in benefits."

Depends how you define sympathetic of course...

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This TV portrayal is about as representative of the majority of people who are entitled to claim benefits as the patient roll in Embarrassing Bodies is of the usual waiting list down your local GP's surgery.

Yes, there are people who shamelessly abuse the welfare system. But that system is still a necessary crutch for countless millions.

What the Benefits Street circus does is feed into the notion of the undeserving poor which is still enthusiastically peddled in some quarters. How we have progressed!

The Victorians' idea of light entertainment was to go down and ogle the unfortunate inmates of Bedlam. In 2014 we're encouraged to think of poor people as legitimate targets of derision. And that doesn't just begin and end with one TV show.

Think locally (to coin a phrase) and increasingly what passes for humour with the chattering classes here in Northern Ireland is sneering at poor people who haven't had the same educational advantages as they've had themselves.

Shamefully, some people lucky enough to have availed of a third level education seem to find the grammatical failings of those less fortunate in their schooling a source of tremendous mirth.

More a laughing matter surely than somebody's misplaced apostrophe is some of the advice currently being offered from official sources to those at the bottom of the economic heap.

Take government minister Esther McVey whose answer to youth unemployment (and we have a particular problem in this part of the world) is to let them serve cappuccino.

Esther thinks that young people who can't find jobs elsewhere should apply to their local coffee shop. Where obviously they're all automatically going to secure a position.

Esther's mistake may be that she is seriously over-estimating the numbers of vacancies nationwide for caff baristas.

She is certainly under-estimating the demand for the all-important "previous experience" that most employers expect today. The "previous experience" which most young wannabe workers just do not have. Benefits Street may not be as universally shocking as one television show tries to make out. But sadly it isn't anywhere near as easy to escape as MPs make out either.


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