In 2010 the newly elected Conservative-led British government announced the most radical overhaul of the welfare system since its creation, post the Second World War. At the start of 2014 Channel 4 broadcast a five-part series, Benefits Street, documenting the impact of these changes on residents of James Turner Street, an area of high unemployment and benefit dependency in Birmingham, England.
Benefits Street has caused a furore in the UK. Some viewers unfamiliar with the way of life portrayed are disgusted by these ‘benefits scum’; while left-leaning voices rail that the program is unrepresentative, extreme and exploitative.
Watching the episodes here in Washington DC, two years after leaving the UK, has been both oddly nostalgic as well as disturbing. The cast of characters, and the life circumstances they find themselves in, have a distinctly British feel to them. They remind me of dozens of neighbourhoods I visited across the UK when working for a public policy think tank. And yet, it is has been this very familiarity that I have found most disconcerting: each of these lives stands in for hundreds of thousands of others in Britain who could tell tragically similar stories.
‘White Dee’ is an unemployed mum bringing up two children by herself. ‘Omniscient’, and ‘mothering’ those she perceives to be more vulnerable than herself, she adopts a questionable parenting style with her own children.
‘Fungi’ is a 44-year-old alcoholic and drug addict. He was prescribed medication from the age of 16 to help him deal with being ‘messed about with as a kid’. He now uses methadone (the prescribed heroine substitute), alcohol, and non-prescribed drugs. His physical frailty and emotional vulnerability is palpable. He is not in work, and he is estranged from his children.
‘Black Dee’ is a young woman languishing in her sixth year of unemployment.
‘Mark and Becky’ are kind-hearted and naive enough to brave living together and raise a family on benefits. Their children grow up in a frightening level of chaos.
And ‘Danny’ is an ex-young-offender-turned-amateur-shoplifter whose universe encompasses all of the shopping mall, his street and the local prison at the end of it.
Twenty years ago I lived and worked in a hostel that had space for 16 residents. In the two years I lived there I saw a steady stream of various, colourful and desperate forms of existence in a churning chaos of surprising violence and vulnerability.
For example, living there were two or three heroin addicts in their late 20s. At some points during the week they would be well turned-out and we’d cook and enjoy a meal together like it was normal life. But at other times they’d be sat in the corner of the communal lounge, dribbling out of their mouths, skin pale-green as they sat in the medicated glow of their methadone scripts.
The 60-year-old Irish and Scottish alcoholics in their second-hands suits were up at 6am to cause God-knows what mischief, their faces purple with varicose veins, with an abuser-in-denial temperament that swung wildly from cheerful storyteller to blindly drunk venomous bastard swinging punches. They would go out once a week to collect their benefits, and return several hours later to urinate them on the floor, before collapsing into bed for the rest of the day.
There were those who sniffed glue; the mentally ill whose medication prevented them from seeing spiders the size of armchairs, or electric bolts from pouring out of the walls; self-harmers who, when they weren’t with us, were at the local psychiatric ward. And then there was the occasional ex-care leaver, whose life teetered somewhere between Social Services and the sticky grip of the criminal justice system. One 16 year old I worked with had been beaten his whole life by his alcoholic father until he was taken into care. At his coming-of-age at 16, the state thought our hostel would prove a fit place for finishing school. I was later to visit him in a Young Offenders Institute where he was serving three months for biting a Policeman.
At least three of the residents I knew died in the two years I was there – one of a heroine overdose. Another smashed into a number of parts by a train one night when drunk. Another died in her sleep. Several went to prison. Our success stories were few and far between. Transformation was possible: it was just incredibly difficult.
And yet the key thing I was left with from my time at the hostel was an overriding sense that the drug addict and I, so ostensibly different, were made of the same stuff: we could fall as low but also rise as high.
Eleven years later, now a Director at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), my job involved visiting nonprofits in dozens of towns looking for innovative solutions to poverty to bring to the attention of top policymakers in Westminster.
It was the work of these nonprofits, and the blistering hope generated by the lasting transformation in communities blighted by poverty, that were the highlight of my time at the CSJ. It is part of what makes me nostalgic in watching Benefits Street. I am reminded of my trips to Bradford, Birmingham, Bristol, Burton upon Trent, Carlisle, Colchester, Derby, Glasgow, Hull, London, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Peterborough, Plymouth, Reading, Stockport and Watford. I met countless people with similar stories to those of James Turner Street, except with a happier ending. They had been offered transformation and grasped it.
Many of these non-profits were far more successful than we had been at our hostel. There were drug addicts like Fungi who had been offered residential rehabilitation, close medical care and counseling: providing them the opportunity to come completely clear of any substance dependence. In turn they had been equipped to work, helped in finding jobs, and reunited with their families.
There were those working with the children like White Dee’s, helping them to access jobs and providing them with an encouraging voice, ‘You can do it, you can work’ and mentoring them through vital work experience placements. Rather than play with the local alcoholics, they were providing homework clubs, game nights, good food, and helping teenagers get a brighter hope of what they could aspire to.
Then there were those incredible charities that worked with the Mark and Becky’s of the world, teaching them basic parenting skills, helping them to find work. I was amazed by one nonprofit in particular that worked with teachers to better serve the children like those of James Turner Street. They were ‘interrupting the inter-generational transmission of poverty’ by helping teachers and students to take better care of themselves in toxic home environments.
And I visited some stunning work in prisons helping many Danny’s, stopping them in their tracks and provoking them to think, for the first time, ‘What am I doing?’ and, ‘Why am I doing it?’ Prisoners testified to the transformation they experienced, prison wardens corroborated: coming off drugs, leaving a world of crime, and making radical choices to leave a cohort so powerfully shaped by a benefits and welfare system that would rather manage their decline than offer true transformation.
Whether the producers at Channel 4 dealt fairly or honestly with the residents of James Turner Street, I have no idea. But the resulting exposé is an accurate, empathetic, portrayal of a very regular, feature of British life, one that has been left to develop in the dark for too long, one we would rather forget about; but one that with changes to the welfare system – and the help of effective nonprofits – can be transformed.
Chris Bullivant was a Director of the Centre for Social Justice from 2006-2011, a centre-right think tank that developed public policy with a focus on the most vulnerable in Britain. He currently lives in Washington DC with his wife Allie.