A Summer of Television Poverty Porn

By Tracy Jensen

It has been quite a summer for antagonistic television in the UK. In July, Channel 4 broadcast How To Get A Council House, which chronicled the devastating shortage of affordable housing in one of London’s most overcrowded boroughs, and Why Don’t You Speak English?, which paired migrants with ‘host’ families for a week to improve their language skills. While the content of these programmes did occasionally veer into sympathy and even compassion, the programme’s deliberately titillating titles were enough to paper over much of this subsequent complexity – the former seemingly promising an expose of housing loopholes exploited by those savvy enough to play the system, the latter phrased as an accusation steeped in racism and linguistic/geographical propriety. In August, Channel 4 broadcast Benefits Britain 1949, a reality programme which set three benefit claimants the challenge of living by the benefit rules of 1949 (when the welfare state was first launched). I will be writing about Benefits Britain 1949 in more detail elsewhere, but for now it is worth pointing out how, like much current ‘austerity culture’ it romanticises post-war ‘resilience’ and ‘toughness’ with little socioeconomic context. In any case, UK viewers are surely by now familiar with the shock tactics of Channel 4, once an independent innovator and champion of the oppressed, now increasingly a peddler of emotional money-shots and clichéd horror-prompts at exotic Others (mostly ‘the poor’). It was more surprising to see the BBC, the “voice of the nation”, stride into this territory, but stride they did, with We All Pay Your Benefits, a two-part July documentary in which four ‘taxpayers’ and four ‘claimants’ were paired up, ostensibly to learn from one another about work and worth.

The genre of ‘poverty porn’ is diffuse and covers a broad range of formats: from cookery and lifestyle programmes fronted by shrewd celebrities who have recognised the appetite for recession-focused culture (Jamie Oliver and Kirsty Allsopp, who both came to media prominence by inviting viewers to spend and consume, are now reinventing themselves as gurus of budget living), to reality incarnations which feature people living on low incomes undergoing financial ‘retraining’ or being set challenges to shop smarter. Abigail Scott Paul of The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently criticised the willingness of television producers to exploit the very real hardships experienced in the UK as a result of austerity measures and welfare ‘reforms’, stating that, as usual, “people in poverty are objectified on TV for the gratification of others”.

In the first episode, the camera follows the taxpayers as they are introduced to their claimant partner, are invited to cross the threshold and peer into their lives, homes and possessions.

We All Pay Your Benefits is fronted by Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, who first featured on our television screens as advisors to enterprise tsar Alan Sugar on the reality programme The Apprentice. Nick Couldry and Jo Littler (2011) have described The Apprentice as ‘ritualized play’ which dramatises the new precariousness of work culture and replaces social collegiality and collaboration with a highly individualised and even aggressive form of charismatic power. As they argue, The Apprentice requires that its contestants absolutely internalise the values of chaotic neoliberalism – and consequently position all subsequent ‘failures’ (“you’re fired!”) as part of a ‘natural’ order in the competitive workplace. Sugar himself has repeatedly attacked maternity rights as “counterproductive”, boasted of his sexist hiring policy and has had tempestuous working relationships with many of his Apprentice ‘winners’. We All Pay Your Benefits inherits this ideological history and works in a parallel way, symbolically dividing ‘workers’ from ‘shirkers’ as if such categories could be approached as solid – and more importantly as if belonging to either could be understood as merely a matter of will. In the first few minutes, Nick and Margaret firmly position themselves in the ‘worker’ camp (their initial exchange in the back of a taxi proceeds: “the benefits world is not something I know anything about, do you”, “me neither, me neither, we’re the explorers”) and the final frame of the opening credit sequence leaves us in no doubt about who is being reprimanded (literally here, looked down on) by the programme’s title:

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At the heart of the programme is the symbolic division between ‘worker’ and ‘shirker’, or in the current manifestation, ‘skiver’ and ‘striver’. These divisions are constructed through the very machinery of the programme: the ‘taxpayers’ clock up many minutes of the broadcast speaking to camera on their initial journeys to the ‘claimants’ homes, offering unchallenged caricatures of what they imagine ‘a life on benefits’ to be. It is impossible to know what proportion of this was elicited by producers and what was spontaneously offered, though in places, the prejudices of the taxpayers seem almost wilfully mocked in the edit. Taxpayer Debbie for example accompanies Kelly on her weekly supermarket shop, and comes across as cold-hearted and miserly in her determination to find fault with spending habits. She repeatedly questions why Kelly’s children should have two hot meals a day, before criticising her for buying a whole chicken rather than chicken fillets and for buying “high-salt, high-sugar” supermarket brand tinned food. Their exchange ends in Kelly’s tears and is a powerful reminder to the viewer that the ‘skiver/striver’ rhetoric so enthusiastically embraced by some of the participants has upsetting consequences for those that are stigmatised by it.

There are a set of foundational myths that accompany the programme as it unfolds: one is that the unemployed don’t want to work, another is that full employment is possible under neoliberalism. Tracy Shildrick et al. (2012) have powerfully challenged this narrative, pointing to the existence of a low-pay, no-pay cycle which affects many people in recurrent poverty. They describe the cycle as a “longitudinal pattern of employment instability and movement between low-paid jobs and employment, usually accompanied by claiming of welfare benefits” (2012: 18). Far from being ‘lazy’ or ‘workshy’, many people claiming unemployment benefits do so over short spells, in between periods of low-paid, poor quality, precarious, short-term or zero-hours work. This kind of work is increasing in neoliberal Britain at a faster rate than permanent, full-time, living-wage work. Importantly, it is no longer confined to entry-level work (a stepping-stone, from which one might be promoted) but constitutes a ‘sticky state’ of work, a cycle of entrapment which has a powerful stigmatising effect in terms of future opportunities.

Even within the programme itself, the cracks in these unemployment myths erupt at key moments. ‘Unemployed graduate Liam’, whose appearance on screen is repeatedly accompanied by a visual motif of his branded consumer goods, is revealed to be volunteering at a youth centre in order to gain experience. He is able to live rent-free at his grandfather’s house: without this and under current housing benefit law, Liam would qualify for Housing Benefit up to the level of Local Housing Allowance for a single room in a shared house, and would be required to make up any rent shortfall from his other benefits. The financial support he gets from his family is presented as a problem which fuels his consumer desires, rather than as cushioning his meagre unemployment benefits. We ought to ask, how far is Liam’s story representative and what does it disguise in terms of changes to Housing Benefit calculations and rising rates of youth homelessness? Luther, whose lung disorder limited the physical work he was able to do, described himself as a homemaker and described his ‘job’ as raising his children: a powerful challenge to the programme’s limited vision of work and worth, though one which is continually dismissed. ‘Single mum Kelly’ commented that while she could not commit to early morning cleaning shifts (leaving her house at 5.30am) for a lack of childcare, she would be happy to take on a later shift. This was promptly contrasted with her ‘taxpayer’ peer Debbie (also a single mum) for whom childcare (Nick and Margaret imagine) would “not get in her way”. We are not told what shifts Debbie works, or how she resolved her childcare needs: nor is any detailed consideration of patchy, inadequate and expensive childcare presented. After meeting with an employment analyst, the presenters Nick and Margaret themselves acknowledge (albeit briefly) that the inadequacy of job opportunities has a more important effect on prolonging unemployment than any individual’s desire to work or otherwise.

Despite these eruptive moments, the programme’s ideological message was clear; worth comes from paid work and not from childrearing or volunteering; unemployment is a problem of will or determination and not of structural obstacles; and social security itself generates the ‘problem’ of welfare dependence. The insights gleaned from experts were soon forgotten and Nick and Margaret want to know at the end of the process if the claimants’ “attitudes to work” have changed. From the first moments of footage, and throughout, the divisions between taxpayer/claimant

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are symbolically and verbally reinforced as if they are different ‘types’ of people.

But the ideology presented on the screen in We All Pay Your Benefits does not necessarily translate into its acceptance by the viewer. As Beverly Skeggs and Helen Wood remind us in their recent book Reacting to Reality Television (2012), programmes such as these work by inciting and generating feelings (disgust, anger, shame, pride); feelings which in turn activate broader circuits of value, systems of judgement, evaluations and assessments.

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These circuits of value depend upon the social and economic locations of viewers, and the judgements we make as viewers towards those on the screen might be to do with questions of taste, cultural or political critique, or associated with a moral objection. For Skeggs and Wood, it is precisely because reality TV operates at this level of sensation, of provoking and inciting feeling, that it should be recognised as a politicized site. Whatever the programme producers had hoped to incite, they could surely not have predicted the wave of sensation that erupted on social media during the broadcast. The hashtag #HappyToPayYourBenefits began to trend on Twitter during the broadcast of both episodes, used by viewers who were appalled by the divisive message of the programme who wanted to express their support of the welfare system. Scrolling through these tweets is instructive and energising and demonstrates the appetite for solidarity even in the face of ‘poverty porn’ television and the postwelfare consensus it seeks to establish. As sociologists we should seek to not only counter the unemployment myths which are presented, unchallenged, on such programming, but also to incubate and extend these kinds of popular resistances to neoliberal rhetoric.

The first episode of We All Pay Your Benefits featured (for me, its lowest point) one low-paid single mother peering disapprovingly into the shopping basket of another. However, through unexpected moments of camaraderie and compassion between the artificial categories of ‘claimant’ and ‘taxpayer’, the neoliberal myths of work and worklessness are challenged. At the end of the second episode, when asked if his experience of working has made him re-assess his life on benefits, Luther incisively turns the question round and states that his ‘taxpayer’ peers are underpaid: “both are worth more than what these jobs pay”. Both Liam and Kelly recognise the strains placed on the family lives of their taxpayer peers through the demands of long hours, night shifts and low-paid work. Speaking back to austerity culture, and specifically to ‘poverty porn’ television, requires that we resist the symbolic and stigmatising divisions that it tries to impose, and seek instead the common costs we all face as a result of the excesses of global neoliberalism.


Nick Couldry and Jo Littler (2011) ‘Work, Power and Performance: Analysing the ‘reality’ game of The Apprentice’, Cultural Sociology 5 (2) pp263-279

Tracy Shildrick, Robert MacDonald, Colin Webster and Kayleigh Garthwaite (2012) Poverty and Insecurity: life in low-pay, no-pay Britain Bristol: Policy Press

Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood (2012) Reacting to Reality Television: Performance, Audience and Value London: Routledge

Tracy Jensen’s research explores the classed and gendered intersections of contemporary parenting culture, and how these are reproduced across social, cultural, media and policy sites. Tracy tweets at @Drtraceyjensen.

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