Poverty, politics and mainstream media

benefits street

Written by Amelia Ward

Upon the discovery that Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has demanded Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of Work and Pensions, to make even harsher cuts than previously planned, the Tory government have solidified their image as one of the elite ruling class who operate on a system that benefits themselves. Now, freed from the shackles of the Liberal Democrat coalition they will relish nothing more than to steam ahead with crippling austerity policies. Not only are we faced with an unsympathetic Tory government but elsewhere, we are witnessing a growing trend of “poverty porn.” channel four and five being the main culprits, commissioning the production of shows like “Skint” “Benefits Street” and “Life On The Dole.” Many would say these shows are harmless, a form of entertainment, simply documenting the lives of those in Britain today, providing a social commentary and offering a – shall we say colourful – insight into the lives of the working class. I disagree – the shows demonize whole sectors of society, programmes like this tarnish the working classes with the same brush, they provide the fuel for papers like The Sun – which print sensationalist news stories surrounding the poor in Britain. They pick the most ludicrous people in society and use them to represent a larger group, what is portrayed in the media does not cohere with real life.

1 in 5 of Britons today do live in poverty and it is important that mainstream media explores this issue. However, the questions that have to be asked is why are people living in poverty, how does it arise in the first place and who is affected?

Because of the individualistic culture we live in, capitalist ideals are placed closest to our hearts; we are sold the idea you can “make it” if you try hard enough – although I believe it is important that we place responsibility on the individual to orchestrate their own lives, we also need to take into account that if faced with unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances it sets members of society at a disadvantage to others; so how are they expected to rise above that and thrive? The truth is that those born into struggling socio-economic conditions will find it difficult to flourish in their environment – if you live in a deprived area, if you attend a school with poor teaching, it’s more difficult to attain good results, without these you may struggle to access jobs or attend colleges and/or universities. Other factors that contribute towards poverty can include, but are not limited to: zero hour contracts and temporary jobs – they are rife and exploit workers; also the minimum wage does not effectively provide people with an income that correlates to standards of living. Being of different race or religion to the majority of the population can also impact on individuals endeavours. Health problems, mental or physical also affect an individual’s income. We need to have to look at the lack of opportunities for those from working class backgrounds compared to those from middle class homes. In these shows we see on TV, none of this is really assessed.

The current government are dealing with the deficit through harsh benefit cuts. Senior Tory MPs like Iain Duncan Smith would have you believe that cutting welfare gives people the incentive to work and pushes them to succeed but austerity measures only worsen the situation for many. Vulnerable groups in society bear the brunt of the cuts and attacking those who are unemployed or on low incomes drives them into the direst conditions whilst furthermore, leaving them resentful and sceptical of the intentions and motives of politicians.

The discussion surrounding how poverty arises and who’s responsibility it is to deal with it will continue to be a talking point and will be disputed depending on an individual’s political ideology. However, we do know for definite that we are faced with a government that believes we should condemn the poor and a media that delights in exploiting and twisting the realities of many – selling the idea that those on low incomes are parasites and a burden on society, that those who claim benefits get too much money, that there is a mass of people that don’t work because they are lazy, the idea that if you are poor, you deserve so.

We won’t be able to move forward without dismantling this system, whereby media and politics fraternize to create a framework that spreads mistrust, hatred and harmful stereotypes – ideals that benefit both institutions.

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