3 Things We Should Learn From Benefits Street


Apart from the unfortunate title, Benefits Street is pretty good.

Having seen the first two episodes I genuinely can’t understand what the fuss is about.

It’s a great piece of commercial television (think – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding) that’s designed to shock.

And , boy , have we fallen for it.

Primetime TV + Benefits  =  Bang: The Twitter Liberal Left erupt in a perfectly predictable frenzy.

But by dismissing the show out of hand  (I reckon less than 10% of people tweeting about it have actually watched it) we miss vital opportunities.

  • We don’t learn from people who are superb storytellers and know how to construct a genuinely populist narrative. (Something the social housing sector has failed to do time after time)
  • We don’t learn lessons about the way our organisations have failed to connect with some communities, and have contributed to their social exclusion.
  • We get distracted and start indulging in petty campaigns (petitions to get it taken off air – for heaven’s sake!) rather than thinking big and innovating.

If we did more listening and a little less talking we would pick up three important lessons:

1 – You change hearts and minds with stories not statistics

The past couple of weeks have seen a number of infographics and articles that aim to challenge the actual size of the welfare problem or show that tax avoiders are the bigger issue.

All of which are very interesting and probably correct but serve no purpose whatsoever in moving the debate forward.

Does anybody think that someone with an entrenched belief that welfare is a lifestyle choice gets one of these things in their inbox and says  “Oh. I see. I was wrong all along. Apologies”.

Of course not. The producers of Benefits Street know that storytelling trumps statistics every time. As Thom Bartley points out in his latest post:

“The public doesn’t respond to blah blah million lost off a balance sheet, they respond to the story about a mother losing benefit because her disabled kid uses an extra room”

2 – Real people tell a better story than professionals

This is the master stroke of Benefits Street. They’ve allowed people to speak for themselves. The professionals who help and , sometimes,  hinder their lives are mercifully absent.

Here’s how we are referred to:

Letter from Work Programme provider: “What f*****g work programme? I’ve never worked in my life”

DWP changing payments: “There’s going to be riots soon unless people start getting paid”

Housing:  “These landlords think they are clever (chasing rent). They’ll have to pay to go court and it’ll take you about a year and a half”

So – not a great level of advocacy for the agencies who are paid millions to support them.

The residents come across as likeable , aware of their own shortcomings and display a deep sense of community.

It’s refreshing to hear the impact of reforms – positive and negative-  untainted by professional bias. We need more of this.

3 – The best ideas come from communities

The greatest thing about the programme are the many innovations that residents employ to get through their day to day lives.

These are not people without talent.

They are people who have existed in a system that has concentrated on what they can’t do rather than what they can.

I see more innovation on display on James Turner Street than I see across many organisations. Some examples:

  • Neighbourhood mouthpiece “White Dee” using a community favours scheme to get a guy to save money for clothes and not blow it on drink and drugs.
  • The “50p Man” who sells household essentials like washing powder in smaller affordable portions. He came up with the idea in prison and dreams of turning it into a national franchise.
  • The Romanians turning trash into cash – literally going through bins.

One of the problems across the social sector is there’s too much top down innovation and an over reliance on tech based solutions.

We need to listen to communities , seed fund some grass roots projects and get out of the way. 

The only real problem with Benefits Street , as Charlie Brooker has pointed out , is that title.

It’s designed to get your back up.

So let’s stop falling for it.

Now is the time for big transformational innovation.

Now is the time for our very best social innovators to work with the residents of James Turner Street and others like them.

  • We could fund the likes of White Dee to become a Community Connector.
  • We could try a localised approach to job creation and a resident led Work Programme.
  • We could create a new deal for tenants rather than just moving them in and leaving them to it.
  • We could have a social accelerator programme to scale up business ideas – like the 50p man.
  • We could attempt to pilot a whole new system of benefits and help the Government out rather than sitting around willing Universal Credit to fail (Matt Leach outlines just such an approach in his excellent post here)

Or we could just get angry on Twitter, do battle with Daily Mail readers and become ever more polarised in our views.

I know how I want to spend my time.

How about you?


40 thoughts on “3 Things We Should Learn From Benefits Street

  1. Great stuff Paul.
    Way too many top down paternalistic & statistical responses to the programme.
    Way too little acknowledgement of the positives or creative solutions like these!

    1. Thanks Peter – part of the problem is the whole “debate” has become so politicised and people are taking sides without actually considering the evidence.

      Have successive Governments let people down – Yes.
      Do organisations (like HA’s) need to change their approach to engaging excluded communities – Yes
      Is life going to get harder for people on benefits – Yes

      I just think we need to concentrate on the doing rather than endlessly discussing the “extent of the problem”.

  2. Good post Paul; there’s a couple of points I’d make in addition to this.

    I agree the residents’ stories are powerful, and combined the facts and figures you refer to could be even more persuasive. The infographic you link to is quite good; combined with the programme you could have a strong argument and both approaches work for some people – so why advocate either / or?

    We are, of course, seeing the ‘lives’ of residents filtered through the eyes of editors and TV execs and presented back to us, who in turn edit what we’re seeing in line with our own values and prejudices, resulting in the reaction we’ve seen on Twitter. The title of the programme frames it in the context of the wider debate. You’re unlikely to learn about what life’s really like on James Turner St by watching this programme though.

    1. Really sensible points Ben and you are right to challenge my articulation of it – it shouldn’t be an either/or. That’s my point really as I think that the debate is splitting on political lines when really this shouldn’t be a political argument.

      Whether they are representative of all residents on James Turner St or not there are clearly people who have been let down by successive Government approaches.

      Good point about the filtering by the producers too.

      Thanks for commenting

  3. I don’t think that this is not political. This programme is part of the hijacking of the “debate” about benefits by concentrating on what is seen as people ripping off the state and this links very strongly to the current government agenda. Without this agenda this would not be news. And the way that tax for example is avoided is never the subject of these kinds of programmes. You may be able to see something positive but for many viewers it is more “evidence” of the undeserving poor. And it is very very far from allowing people to speak for themselves as the subjects have little or no editorial control. And I cannot share your benign view of this kind of of commercial TV. The whole point is to use ordinary people to manufacture entertainment – and this fundamentally creates an artificial situation in which the genuine voices of ordinary people are not heard.

    1. Thanks Brian – and of course we are free to disagree. I certainly don’t think this kind of TV is benign – there are huge risks to showing it. But in this case the production company (on evidence of three episodes) have concentrated more on people striving for change than they have on “sitting around on benefits”. It’s a programme about change and we’d do better to support that narrative and show the social sector supports radical and transformative ideas than standing in its way. We risk becoming dinosaurs in my honest opinion.

  4. Interesting article Paul offering a range of thoughtful considerations and positive actions.

    I believe the reason Benefits Street has caused so much upset is because, in the wider scheme of welfare reform, its another unbalanced attempt at demonising those on benefits. It further fuels the hate from ‘hard working people’ as the Tories put it towards people supported by welfare.

    As many people have stated, the name of the show is superfluous and intended to drum up debate. There has been a pitiful amount of insight into what benefit claimants have to go through to gain support. For people who have been fortunate enough not to go to a Job Centre or a Work Capability Assessment I’m sure it would be an eye opener to see how these processes can actually obstruct people getting back to work.

    One last point. I agree stories are important, but I believe a balance of statistics and narratives are both important to understanding social issues. Social media tends to lean towards the sharing of statistics over stories, as they present a quick snapshot of a situation. However if you do enough research you will find plenty of stories regarding the impact of welfare forms usually from local papers which sometimes reach the nationals (the Mirror have published a few in past months).

    1. I have to be honest Keith and say the reason BS has caused so much upset is mainly because most people haven’t watched it.

      If you work in social change and innovation you would see a community with huge spirit , a desire for change and great ideas – you simply couldn’t ask for more! But the Social Housing / Liberal Left (Of which I’m a part by the way) is knee jerking to anything linked with Welfare Reform.

      However I agree with you on name of the show – but this is commercial TV – just like Gypsy Weddings.

      I give the participants enough credit for making the decision to take part – others don’t – as if the “poor” aren’t capable of making same choices as the rest of us.

      Great comment though – thanks

  5. Hi Paul, firstly I agree with many of your points and your 3 main conclusions. I am also a true believer in storytelling being both powerful and important and i believe we have much of that in our sector. My problem with the programme, is not that they made it but more that whilst residents living on the street told their own stories, it was done mostly without context. Route causes are an impotant and vital part to understanding and finding solutions that people of all backgrounds can connect with, otherwise ideas for moving in a positive direction can be too simplistic or underestimated. The risk is well meaning, quick fix solutions don’t last – its like reading a book with no introduction or prologue, you would never be able to properly understand the ending – no context. So either the programme edited around it, wasn’t interested in it or didn’t care about how the ‘ignorant’ contingent viewed the residents. I know the emphasis was not route causes and progammes can’t cover everything. I just think in its current form, the programme is irresponsible. That said the 50p man really touched me and there are a lot of useful learns and like you, I hope positive things come from it. Your blog got me thinking, so thank you.

    1. Thanks Jacque for posting here and your lovely twitter comments!!

      The one thing I have concerns on about shows like this is what happens to people after the show. I’m concerned by how children are featured and what support is made available from programme producers. However I’ve heard that production companies are trying to improve this after criticism in the past.

      I’m going to be controversial though and suggest we shouldn’t presume that the professional support and after care by agencies is by default good. I know of tenants of housing associations who have never been asked about support to get back to work and even of someone who felt he was better supported by the Jeremy Kyle show than his landlord!

      Extreme examples maybe but certainly #ukhousing has a very middle class paternalistic view of the world that needs to change quite quickly.

  6. Paul, some very interesting observations many of which I agree with and very prescient too as I was with a Ch4 film crew all day Sunday over the pre 1996 exempt issue in a Dispatches programme (made by a different production company than BS – how apt is BS?) that will air the week after BS finishes.

    Stories are indeed powerful and they filmed a few and as we were walking around an estate in Liverpool many tenants came out and were filmed, and very articulate they were as well. Interestingly, their tales were not political rants but my £25 per week bedroom tax is £25 less I can spend on my children. In much the same way as the media is all of a frenzy over the pre 1996 numbers when the real issue is the impacts the imposition of the bedroom tax has caused for tenants and landlords.

    Funding grassroots organisations and learning from their very creative and innovative solutions? Yes, yes, yes! They focus on solutions and find them and do not dwell on the problems unlike the political commentators and it has to be said social landlords too. My local grassroots group Reclaim were featured in the programme too and the tenants they have helped challenge bedroom tax and many other welfare benefit decisions now go on to help others to do this in what social landlords would call tenant champions – and not because social landlords are now just beginning to approach them if they want funding – but because it was needed and they just went out and did it.

    The simplest solutions they came up with such as data which showed that over 70% of bedroom tax affected were female so how do we find them…ah yes go and talk outside the school gates …. are often beyond the grasp of the social landlord and other ‘professionals’ seeking ever more IT focused solutions and who see social media as ONLY a medium going from landlord to tenant and not the other way!
    Know your customer is something social landlords have never done and your thought provoking blog here proves the point
    Yet your point about welfare being politicised is only an extension of the social housing model being seen in just a political dynamic. The economic benefits of social housing and the capital subsidy sees £1.2bn per annum going in and producing a saving to the public purse of nearly £5bn as without the capital subsidy SRS landlords would claim the same levels of HB that PRS landlords receive. In economic terms a fabulous invest to save programme yet it is only viewed as a political dinosaur….You were saying about social landlords not getting a message across?

    1. That’s a great comment Joe and I’m intrigued to see the programme!

      Your anecdote about finding Mums at the School gate goes to the heart of my argument. This kind of engagement is often way beyond the capabilities of , I’ll call us “Social Professionals”, and it always probably will be.

      We need to be more relaxed about getting out of the way. A lot of the jobs done by many in housing and care should be done by residents and tenants anyway – we are simply not the best people to do them.

      I do believe as you know in the power of social and digital technology but it’s real future is in the hands of tenants. And it’s for them to shape the kind of organisations that they want to serve them and the leadership they need.

  7. Great post! I am definitely not a right-wing sort of person and have always thought of myself being quite left-wing but I greatly enjoy this programme. I am not mad at the residents because they receive benefits, I am not ‘jealous’ that they do and I’m a great believer in the benefits system. But I’m not going to say they’re a misrepresentation of some of the people claiming benefits, there’s a ‘Benefits Street’ area in every city, I’ve lived in a few and everyone knows that these areas exist no matter what.

    For people to use this tv programme as ‘evidence’ or whatever just shows their complete ignorance and quite frankly they need to get off their high horse and start being realistic. All as I’ve seen is people jumping on the bandwagon and I definitely don’t believe the majority of them have tuned in at all. I’ve not even been reading the newspaper I read because of the tons of idiotic stories. It’s a real shame that all that’s come from this is people complaining, as there’s a lot that can be learned from this programme if some actually watched it without having a negative mindset. Also I agree that the petition is ridiculous, don’t like? Don’t watch. Simple.

    Personally I almost find it compelling. It’s great to see neighbours helping one another out and like you said there’s a real sense of community. A lot of people probably don’t even know their next door neighbours name or even know what it’s like to live in a community. I don’t exactly feel sorry for them in a pity way but I can’t help but feel bad for them. They need support, not judgement.

  8. I am afraid I am guilty as charged – I haven’t bothered watching it as I have made the assumption (partly from my twitter feed) that it’s about demonisation rather than celebrating of a community. And of course I retweet those infographics, in the vain hope that someone somewhere might have their opinions changed, but that’s just daft because I don’t imagine I have many followers that are right wing benefits beaters anyway! Perhaps my blinkers need to come off too.

    1. I have to say I only watched because of the firestorm surrounding it – and found myself seeing something completely different to what was being described ( even by the “quality” press)

      I found myself being inspired by some of the stories and came up with at least 3 or 4 things that I could do differently in my day to day work that might help.

      I just worry that by us outright dismissing things we miss these opportunities!

      Thanks for a wonderfully honest comment!

  9. Hi Paul,

    A thought provoking response to Benefits Street, kudos for that alone. Your proposed solutions are entirely workable but require cash – we now have two main political parties who are addicted the illusion of austerity. The Tories want to cut debt as a by-product of their wanton destruction of the post-war consensus, whilst Labour are so desperate to get back in that they’ve totally forgotten their post-depression Keynsian economic roots.

    A country that will not speculate will never accumulate; we need a national promotion of activity designed to get people into work or other productive activity in exchange for a guaranteed basic income for all. The means test has failed, in so much that it never really worked (i.e. you’ll always have those cases of disabled kids losing out), so it’s time to accept that the penalise people for failing to find menial work in an ever-shrinking jobs market whilst the population gets larger is heinous.

    Sorry, I’ve somewhat hijacked your well made points with some incoherent ramblings of my own! I entirely accept and embrace your final point that we need to end the default response of “…we could just get angry on Twitter, do battle with Daily Mail readers and become ever more polarised in our views.” That helps nobody, least of the all the most deprived people in our society.



    1. Thanks Colin – I don’t think you have highjacked it at all!

      I think the central thing we need to concentrate on is to move away from political rhetoric (which is helping no-one) and making sure the right resources go to the people who need them.

      Not easy.

      But if we look at the huge amounts of money swirling around the Work Programme , DWP Universal Credit system , Social Investment funding , the balance sheets of HA’s etc etc – we can see that there are resources – just they are not joined up in any meaningful way.

      A change of Government won’t alter this. It would just introduce newly badged work programmes. What’s needed is a fundamental re-think of the way organisations and social innovation programmes connect with each other.

  10. Good piece. Perhaps “So – not a great level of advocacy for the agencies who are paid millions to support them.” helps to understand why so many in the media frenzy are unhappy about the programme. If you think that those agencies do invaluable work and are loved and welcomed by their beneficiaries, hearing them dismissed by the people on the programme has to hurt. It doesn’t help anyone to make a case for more intervention.

    Curiously, the third episode did have a lot more positive stuff about such agencies. Mark and Becky (Becky in particular) looked to have benefited from the parenting advice given by the health visitor and Sure Start advisor. Although it was a shame that this advice came after missing both a doctor’s appointment for their son’s chicken pox and the nursery place he had. However, before the health visitor and Sure Start worker came, both Mark and Becky showed that the first reaction to help from the authorities is deep suspicion. Had they not been at their wits’ end about their son’s behaviour would they have been at all receptive? They seemed to accept the agencies coming in because they feared losing their children if they didn’t let them – that risk was the one highlighted by others on the street when they heard who was coming.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think the lack of a really strong tenant voice , particularly on social media , is something that is affecting housing associations for sure. If you haven’t got people shouting about your products then how do you make the case for more investment?

      Great point

  11. Have I watched it? No. Have I criticised it? Yes. Is that wrong? No, because my criticism is directed at how other people will react, and we have seen that time and time again with other poverty porn programmes. I blogged about the on-line reaction to C4’s last piece of poverty porn, Benefits Britain, here: ‘Benefits Britain’, a Study in Enabling Hate Speech http://wheresthebenefit.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/benefits-britain-study-in-enabling-hate.html

    Whether it be Benefits Street, Benefits Britain, Saints and Scroungers, the latest hate piece in the Mail, or whatever, the man in the street has been taught to believe that there is overwhelming fraud in the benefits system. A recent survey showed that on average people believe the rate of benefits fraud to be 27%, whereas it is in reality 0.7% (by DWP’s own figures, and if anyone has reason to exaggerate it’s DWP under IDS), and that the fraud rate is lowest for disability benefits, widely believed by the general population to have the highest rate of fraud – because that’s what they have been told by programmes like this. It no longer matters whether Benefits Street is an accurate or fair portrayal, because it is simply one more bucket of petrol thrown onto a bonfire of hate.

    Most people would agree the reaction of many people on twitter to shows like this is unpleasant, but then dismiss it as the virtual reactions of a few extremists. Unfortunately these people then go out onto the streets, and the ways that they react there aren’t virtual. I’m well into double figures with incidents of abuse from complete strangers because I happen to be disabled, and if I’m disabled, then I must be a scrounger and a fraud. Nor am I alone, my experience is far from unique amongst my disabled friends, indeed one reported a new instance of abuse just yesterday. Other people may not react so openly, but opinions are still being poisoned. I’ve even been told ‘Well you’re clearly genuinely disabled, it’s everybody else who is faking it’ in a meeting at my bank! How far has our tolerance as a society fallen if it’s now so acceptable to disparage disabled people en masse to a disabled person in a professional context?

    So when you think about Benefit Street, don’t just think about what positives you can pluck from it, think about how it plays to people who are convinced that benefit claimants are stealing from them, about the politicians who pander to them, and what that means for those of us who have to live with the consequences of both their actions.

    1. Thanks David – whilst I don’t dismiss what you say – social media erupts over anything. Just look at the comments on any item on the Guardian website , or indeed the Mail.

      A “bonfire of hate” erupted over #BakeOff for heaven’s sake!

      Benefits Street has absolutely nothing in common with some of those shows you have mentioned , apart from one word – Benefits.

      I fundamentally believe in peoples ability to connect with a human story and see the good in people. I’ve already seen people changing their opinions.

      Just because there are a minority of idiots out there is not reason to show that story.

  12. Hi Paul, great post. I love the way you’ve drawn insight from this programme and the point you make about the importance of looking at how human initiative is generating local situations on the ground is well made.

    The big achilles heel is the degree to which HA’s are willing and able to adapt to changing economic, infrastructure and community dynamics, both in terms of what they do and how well they connect and communicate. The seeds of next-generation growth and value creation exist in the stories in BS, as they do in post-capitalist Greece and newly-mobile Africa. These are all places circumventing obstacles and we should learn from them.

    If the programme and your post say one thing to me it’s transformational innovation is only an attitude away. That applies to HA’s as much as to the people on the show and the priority is to enable it.

    1. Thanks Anne. It initially seems counter-intuitive to suggest that Housing Associations and others should learn about job seeking , financial capability , and enterprise from the very people they are meant to be helping – but I don’t think it is.

      We (organisations) have grown too distant and developed structures , models and processes that lack human connection. The opportunity is there to bring it all back. And as you say – it’s only an attitude away.

  13. Some amazing stuff in this discussion, and a really thought-provoking piece from Paul.

    I must admit, I didn’t watch the programme at first, because I assumed it was more exploitative rubbish; and, the reaction that followed from both mainstream media and social media just re-affirmed that view. But, I did start to watch the 3rd episode, because I felt I needed to experience it. Actually, I only watched the first 15 minutes because I found it too painful, mainly because of the kids involved. I really don’t think children that young should be exposed in this sort of thing, that could stay with them for the rest of their lives. I am pleased, though that people like Paul are watching it and providing the kind of thoughtful analysis that is missing elsewhere.

    It reminds me of the furore over another Channel 4 programme, “Make Bradford British”. That was another example of quite an interesting programme given an inflammatory title to drive up ratings. I watched it because I live near Bradford and have worked there, and it proved to be a much more nuanced insight into inter-community relations than the title suggested. And it might also be a lesson, in that some good things came out of it. I subsequently met Rashid and Damon, who were thrown together by the programme, and have subsequently been working together for the cause of cross-community relations in the city. Here is a video interview I did with them about 6 months after the programme went out http://youtu.be/3LFSJOwLXf0 And the programme also gave an elevated voice to a young Muslim women’s activist, Sabbiyah Pervez (@Sabbiyah on twitter) who has used it as a platform to get her views a wider audience.

    Channel 4 have seemed to hit on a formula of deliberately provoking outrage about some of their programmes, whether by an outrageous title or another means. The outrage may not always be justified.

      1. I think that probably sums it up, Anne. It’s another example of being outrageous to attract attention. The people involved in “Make Bradford British” say the title was changed just before broadcast from something much less inflammatory, and this seems to have happened in the case of “Benefits Street” too. Or at least the title given to the participants was changed.

        1. Let’s also remember it’s Channel 4 stated strategy to get prime time shows trending on twitter. #benefitsstreet or #opportunitystreet? Must have been difficult choice!

  14. Having watched all 3 episodes Channel 4 has portrayed many of the ‘characters’ as likeable scallywags but I have to say I did feel uncomfortable watching the interactions between children and adults last night. In James Turner St children are not allowed to be children, they are spoken to like other adults, sworn at, given responsibility beyond their years but then expected to go to bed when told. No wonder they don’t know if they are coming or going.
    I hope that the children are being given support and confidence at school which many of the residents of James turner street could have done with in their earlier years.

    1. Thanks Kathrine – I hope you realise I’m not doing an outright defence – it has the flaws of many docusoap shows. You do worry about playing up for the camera and whether due consideration was given to minors. I share your hope that local schools are supporting them.

  15. Finally got round to reading this before I go to bed and glad I did, Paul. I found this a really positive perspective and I felt a few home truths hitting home with me. It’s so easy to get sucked into the the reactionary mindset and actually much harder to stand back like this and see the lessons for us. Certainly our opposition to reform has failed despite our persistence with a strong logical and coherent argument and will continue to fail. We need to adopt a more proactive and constructive approach. Maybe what’s been stopping us is a fear of being mistaken for taking ‘the wrong side’.

    I’ll definitely be rethinking my own perspective. Incidentally, for a different but equally valid and motivating perspective see Caitlin Moran’s feature today in Times 2.

    1. Thanks Paul – I really appreciate that. Although the piece has been very well received a few people have accused it of colluding with the Right. This is the problem I think you have picked up on – fear of being seen to be on wrong side.

      For me it’s not about sides. If we were more strident , constructive and proactive and didn’t go on the defensive at every opportunity – I think we’d have a lot more credibility.

  16. Very interesting perspective and of course controversial for our sector. I haven’t watched the programme but i’d like to. What you are sating is about being pragmatic and learning from what can seem to be a negative portrayal of people on benefits on national TV. I agree we need to but at the same time we need to be principled too and oppose further stereotyping of the poor and idolising of the rich who as we know are responsible for more ‘money waste’. There is a sense of injustice when it comes to what we transmit as our society’s values in terms of attitudes to rich and poor and who we value the most. And this is why people have taken to air their anger on twitter and social media, against that tendency of marginalising the poort and glorifying the rich. And that needs to continue alongside being practical and learning from what appears to be negative. Very good article though. Laura

    1. Thanks Laura. I do hope that C4 does follow up the programme with one looking at other sections of society, although I very much doubt it. The public have a fascination with the issue of benefits that the media and politicians play on. Many believe it’s the other way around. Sadly , I don’t. Most people simply don’t care about tax evasion in the same way as they do about “benefit fraud”.

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