Friday, 28 August 2009

TV's Benefit Busters socially irresponsible

Like the Tories, in recent weeks the media have seen fit to jump on the "broken Britain" bandwagon, highlighting (and exaggerating) social problems and coming up with quick-fixes.

I had the misfortune of seeing Channel 4's Benefit Busters last week. This show pandered to social prejudices and reinforced steroetypes in its quest to "revolutionise the benefits system", focussing on a group of single mums who were then bullied and prodded to getting the first job they possibly could, irrespective of whether low paid work for the likes of Poundstretcher made them and their children better off.

At no point did the makers of "benefit Busters" ever consider the wider problems the single mums were experiencing. Neither did it examine the problem that, for many people in unskilled work, the minimum wage has effectively become a maximum wage; low-waged, part-time work does very little to encourage people to come off benefits.

The Channel 4 show did its best to fill the viewer with anger at how some on benefits could afford luxuries of large TVs and indulgent toys for the kids, but my real problem was not with the mums who had no budgeting skills (another problem the revolutionaries on Channel 4 didn't try to address) but with the multi-millionaire being paid to get people into dead-end jobs. She seemed to be doing very well from single mums, making huge profits from the welfare state while not actually doing very much constructive.

The problem with TV shows like this is that they work on the basis that we are all outraged about the "large numbers" of single mums "scrounging off the state". Shedding light on the social and economic complexities of the reality clearly isn't Channel 4's thing. Which is sad, because single mums are easy targets and the media should be helping to deconstruct negative steroetypes rather than reinforce them.

At the heart of the matter is how we view single parents. We can either view them, as many do unfairly, as a mass social problem - or we can instead view them as individuals, many of whom would like to work if only given a genuine opportunity. We can view them either as a problem or, more reasonably, as part of the solution to what is being termed "broken Britain". Many single parents need encouragement, guidance and empowerment to find productive employment through which they can become genuinely independent of welfare. What they don't need is more of this from Channel 4.

Politically, our elected representatives need to be more careful how we talk about this issue. It is easy to knock "broken Britain" - quite another to advocate realistic and workable solutions. What I do know is that many single mums do a fantasic job, who love their children unconditionally and work miracles in raising a family single-handedly. It isn't something I could do.

There is no place in 21st century politics, or in a responsible mass media, for judgemental attitudes. We need to be making war on unemployment - not the unemployed.

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