The palaver about Channel4’s Benefits Street and the significance of a Universal Basic Income

Two weeks ago, Mishal Husain from the BBC was almost shouting at Love Production’s exec responsible for the making of Benefits Street currently running on Channel4. ‘Did you tell the people that it would be about benefits? Are you proud of the program you made?’ Love Production has filmed people on James Turner Street in Birmingham for almost a year.  They interviewed people, followed them during their days between unnerving unemployment, complicated childcare, and daunting visits from the landlord. They chose this street because of the high number of benefit recipients in the neighborhood and they knew the program would provoke discussions of this very issue. Their aim was to show what life is like on benefits – and what life is like when benefits are cut. In my opinion they are doing a fantastic job.

I research people on benefits living on the streets of Cambridge and London. I have spent evenings with them on the pavement and spoken to countless people who spend their days watching legs pass by. I have seen how desperate life becomes when you don’t have money. When I first saw Benefits Street I was amazed. Never before had I seen this kind of openness about drug addiction, a taboo topic on television. I couldn’t relate more with the depiction of how the desperate entrepreneurialism is fuelled not by government-imposed discipline, but by an inner drive.

The 50p-man, for instance, walks from door to door and sells all kinds of small goods, from rolls of toilet paper to sweets, for 50p.  Yes, there are drug addicts in this country even though we don’t like to talk about them. But no, benefit cuts do not lead to kowtowing, conscience-stricken do-gooders. Some of the protagonists in Benefits Street make it quite clear that cutting benefits leads to more criminality, more shop-lifting, and more drugs. A rather controversial conclusion?

This is where Benefits Street links in with Haeusermann’s article on the Universal Basic Income which is currently being debated in Switzerland. He writes: “According to its proponents, a universal basic income (UBI) would provide an effective substitute for customary welfare programs and a new approach to tackling growing inequality.” 

Isn’t that exactly what Benefits Street illustrates? How the current system causes individuals to commit crimes due to a sheer fear of falling below the poverty line? A universal basic income would provide people on benefits in the UK with a way towards ‘dignity not charity by virtue of humanity’, as Haeusermann writes. The utopian idea of ‘less work and more play’ does not materialise for the inhabitants of Benefits Street; where a society beyond work is hardly possible, nor even desirable. Many of the programme’s protagonists make this explicit.

Take for example Episode 2, which mainly circles around the life of a group of Romanians who have recently immigrated to the UK.  They had been attracted by middle-men promising high wages and easy work. What they found was an insufferably inhuman work situation with 16-hour days and minimum wages. They explicitly express their ardent desire to work and earn money and stress the importance of work for their daily lives – and that of their families back in Romania. Even though it cannot replace an empirical analysis, the programme is an important depiction of what Haeusermann argues in his piece: “The widely held view that living on means-tested social benefits equates living in a fairy tale is exactly that: a fairy tale.

Given this very apparent critique of the current benefits system I cannot understand the outrage the media left has demonstrated in reaction to the programme. In general, I sympathise with Owen Jones’s critique on Channel4, for instance. There is indeed no program on tax avoiders on the Channel Islands, on the ‘Wolf on Wall Street’ type of guys (and if there is, it is celebratory rather than critical).

This might indeed be due to their financing the media, yet I despise the conspiracy theories behind Jones’s allegations. I don’t think Benefits Street is all about “the producers lust for attention” staging “unsympathetic examples of unemployed people”, as Jones writes. It is always the same song: the rich decide what is shown and the world is unfair. Obviously always a handy critique, isn’t it? What these ever so honest columnists, bloggers, and commentators report only demonstrates their limited understanding   of the show. Why pick at the convenient facts? Why not go a little bit beyond that and engage with the show and what is actually portrayed?

I never thought that I would ever agree with or quote ‘The Spectator’, but Fraser Nelson does exactly that – he actually sits down and listens. What Benefits Street does is expose the comfortable middle class to what actually goes on at the bottom of society. We think we know everything and like to stay out of the thicket. They are all hostile and cheating scumbags, heroin addicts, benefit fraudsters, and scroungers. Benefits Street illustrates, in Nelson’s words,  “a social prison inhabited by a kind, sympathetic and uncompromisingly honest bunch of neighbours.” This mirrors very much my own experiences.

Last year, I spent weeks on the streets of Shoreditch trying to decipher what it was that kept these people going. I found community. People on the streets are associates, friends, and lovers. Not only do they share a common fate but they also share information, housing, intimacies, and bodies. Far beyond ‘drug-buddiship’, I discovered trust. Certainly, there is conflict and dispute over things like money, drugs, and begging-spots, but what keeps people on the street alive is a sense of belonging and security in their community.

This sense of community is what Benefits Street made so apparent to me once again. The more desperate a situation is, the closer you move together. White Dee acts like a street-mum and Fungi is not the only one who is captured by her warmth and sympathy. Is that really a stereotype you would have expected from such a show?

Where, however, do we take Benefits Street? I don’t agree with Nelson’s suggested solution to the issues, which the programme raises. Merely continuing conservative policies will not fix the system; far from it. The Universal Credit is not helpful in its current form. Labour too does not come up with a valid alternative under the ‘One Nation’ banner. Benefits should not be cut. What we need is someone who sits down and does the math. Does it make sense to incentivise benefit claimants to search for jobs when there are presently none due to structural failures? Shouldn’t we be listening to people, like the show’s own White Dee and others about what it is that keeps them away from crime?

Programs such as Benefits Street are important. Just like any investigative journalism, it puts something in front of us that we are uncomfortable engaging with. Wrong expectations among participants might have been raised in the beginning. This is a criticism worth pursuing. But the detailed descriptions and depictions it offers should be a wake up call rather than the recurring lullaby. Depending on benefits is not a pleasant way of living and cutting them further will not bring positive results, as the only remaining retreat is delinquency and a sense of community. A universal basic income might be a potential way out.

Johannes Lenhard is currently a post doctoral researcher at the Max Cam Center for the Study of Ethics, the Economy and Social Change at the University of Cambridge and a College Research Associate at King’s College, Cambridge. His work is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. His new project is discovering the ethics of venture capital investing and is the current editor-in-chief of KR.