If you live in the UK, you probably already know about the Channel 4 programme 'Benefits Street', a documentary series which has attracted an awful lot of attention and controversy over the past month or so.
For my overseas readers, a very brief synopsis - 'Benefits Street' is a crude nickname for James Turner Street, a suburban avenue in a rough part of Birmingham in the West Midlands. According to the programme, the street has acquired this nickname because the majority of residents there are unemployed and living on benefits, with some never having worked at all. The series documents these people's lives over a year by shoving cameras in their faces and talking to them etc. The programme has generated controversy because many believe that our current Government - with the help of their friends in the media - are demonising poor people/people currently living on benefits. We're encouraged to believe that these people are "scum", are an inferior race, and should all be shot, or something.
The first two episodes of 'Benefit Street' were grim. Episode One centred on a chap called Danny who has a penchant (great word, I'm pleased with that one) for nicking things, selling them, then buying drugs with his "earnings". We saw Danny's tactics - lining a shopping bag with foil to stop the alarms going off - and we saw him being forcibly arrested in Birmingham city centre.
Episode Two wasn't much better. This time, we saw a group of Eastern Europeans move in to James Turner Street, having been promised work doing fruit picking on a farm, or something. To their horror they soon realised that they were being treated as slaves, and with no money and about twelve grown men trying to share a house suited for a family of four, they upped ship and cleared off, presumably back to their own country. They originally fled their country for a better life - one guy's sole aim was to earn some money and send it back home to help feed his starving child - but they soon found they were being treated worse over here than they were back home.
Grim stuff, but Episode Three was painfully tough to watch, and the episode which has made me want to put pen to paper (or the blogging equivalent, anyway). Episode Three centred around a young couple, Mark and Becky, who - and I'm kind here - aren't going to be winning Mastermind any time soon. Mark has never worked (more on this later), and spends his time with Becky looking after their two young children, Casey and Callum.
Callum is, to be polite, a problem. Over the course of the episode we see Callum demanding a bowl of cereal at midnight, not going to bed until 5am, not going to nursery because ????? and having rather impressive temper tantrums that see him ending up in 'Punishment Porch' - a lovely little prison cell for him between the front door and a stairgate contraption.
Watching between my fingers, I soon began to realise why I found Episode Three so much harder to watch than the first two episodes. It was because I was watching a child's life being utterly destroyed. A child destined to grow up without a fucking chance of making anything of his life.
Callum's childhood seems to be a vicious circle of bad behaviour, violence, imprisonment, no education, verbal abuse and a twisted body clock. Unless there's an urgent intervention, we can see Callum's adult life following an eerily similar pattern - bad behaviour, violence, imprisonment, no education. Callum has no chance in life. None. And it isn't his fault. When he hits his mother and screams "Me hate mummy" it's hard to disagree with him, or blame him for his incorrect grammar.
As I touched on earlier, Mark, the father, has never worked. During Episode Three we saw him - to the obvious shock of his partner Becky - land a "job" doing door-to-door for a charity for 100% commission. Yep, that's right - any penny Mark received had to be off the back of a successful encounter. He absolutely tried his best - he put on a smart suit, and grafted all day, but he wasn't very good, to be kind to the lad. He came home shattered having earned precisely £0.00.
Now Mark might not know what the capital of Andorra is, or the square root of 225, but he's not thick enough to know that this was a load of bollocks. "Hard work pays" shouts our Chancellor, but for Mark it didn't. He jacked in the job and went back to his benefits. Blame him? I don't. I really don't.
Instead I just feel sorry for Mark. At one point he reflects on how nobody is going to give him a job, and to be fair to the lad he's absolutely right. I know how hard it is to find work at the moment, and I have a degree and work experience, am astonishingly intelligent, good looking, and modest. Mark has nothing. He can't put anything on his CV. He can't win - a problem which then filters down to his child, who can't win in life either.
When I think about the residents on James Turner Street, I sit back and I wonder what their dreams were when they were, say, 10. White Dee, Fungi, Danny, Black Dee, Mark and Becky - I bet none of them daydreamed as a child about a soul-crushingly boring life on benefits, going through life "existing" rather than "living", until they die and they're buried somewhere and nobody gives a shit.
At the beginning I mentioned how 'Benefits Street' has proved controversial. Many believe that programmes like this are put on solely to demonise these people, to encourage society to label them as "dossers", "scum", "lazy scroungers" etc etc. When I watch the programme however, I can't bring myself to think this. Instead, I just feel sorry - sorry for them, but also sorry for society. Mark and Becky went to their local food-bank during the episode - not because they particularly wanted to, I don't think, but because they had to, just to feed their child.
Think about that. In the United Kingdom, 2014, people are having to use food-banks to feed their children, whilst the Government tries their hardest to turn one section of society against these people. It's enough to make you weep, and think "There but for the Grace of God...." I wish I knew what the answer was, but in the short-term, sniggering at these people and thinking of them as a hopeless underclass probably doesn't help.
Help. That's what these people need, but right now they're not getting much of it.
Shame on us. Shame on us all.