‘Poverty porn’ is one of TV’s most controversial genres at the moment. There is a debate about how much such programmes are a look at life at the bottom of society’s scrapheap in terms of highlighting issues, and how much they are exploiting the less fortunate. Added to this is the fact these shows naturally target the most extreme examples of those on the welfare examples, whether it is those bringing in tens of thousands of pounds (often in the way it is framed unfairly so) or those struggling to make ends meet.

Benefits Britain: Life on the Dole is one such example of this genre, and compared to Benefits Street is a lot less worried about hiding its exploitative side. This week’s episode covered three particular welfare claimants in seaside towns: single-mum Stacey, EDL-supporter Dave, and ‘welfare veteran’ Debbie. In at least 2 of the three cases the viewer was actively encouraged to be angry at the claimant.

In the case of Dave, this for me at least came in his constant bashing of immigration. They were stopping him getting a job for agreeing to work for less money, had houses built for them and were discriminating against him, he claimed. But a keen-eared viewer would see that things didn’t add up with his story. Dave said he had given up work to look after his sick mum, yet bar one very short scene he never showed that he was. And besides, if he chose to give up work, surely he can’t blame an immigrant for not having one? In a bizarre turn of events, by the end of the episode he had actually started working for one in a kebab shop. I would have liked a catch-up at the end of the episode to see how he was faring, but we were denied. I would also like when people like Dave blame ‘non-indigenous people’ for their plight to be more openly challenged, or for at least for their opinions to be delved into a little more, but I suppose that denies the sound bite we as viewers apparently crave.

Debbie was arguably framed in even worse terms by the editors. We were told repeatedly about the thousands of pounds she earned on benefits, as she rolled her fags, drank her beer and threw dinner parties for her neighbours just to make space in the fridge for buying too much food from shopping. It was harder to feel sympathetic for her plight because she did not appear to be suffering, hence why her rants about how posh people look down on her became edited into comedy. Frustratingly, whilst she may represent what middle England most fears about the welfare system, she was the only one to take the battle to the rich. If tax avoidance wasn’t such big news right now, many people would just disregard her comments as those belonging to just another ne’er-do-well. A more cogent person making these comments would certainly have garnered more respect from the viewer.

Stacey’s story was a little different. Out of work bringing up a baby in a flat smaller than your average kitchen, she genuinely came across as someone who needed a helping hand, as opposed to being on the take. Her dreams for her young soon – school, college, university, a career – are simple enough in practice but a million times harder for her to achieve in reality than we would give credit for. The sheer joy on her face at just being able to take him swimming melted my heart that had remained icy throughout. But even here there were nods from the editors that it was her fault. Again, the shots of fags, the numerous tattoos etc. All this silently telling the viewer ‘well she must have got the money from somewhere’. I resisted this trap, and only wish her well. The right support could see her and her son really get something out of life. Sadly, you feel that it just won’t happen.

For me there is no debate about these types of programmes. In failing to go beyond the surface and sensationalising what they find, the producers encourage a divide between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. These extremes are treated as the norm, and quite frankly insult the intelligence of the viewer and of the individuals taking part. We need proper debates about welfare, not tittle-tattle. Until then, being poor will mean big business for TV execs.

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