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As a Social Experiment, 'The Great British Benefits Handout' Fails From the Beginning

Benefits Street with a twist sees families get £26,000 upfront if they agree to get off the dole.

by Sophie Wilkinson
10 February 2016, 11:18am

"It's like we've won the lottery!" yelps a man called Tony, his curly mop of hair jiggling as he gleefully teeters around his council flat like a flicked Subbuteo. He nuzzles into long-term fiancée Diane's grey roots and and exclaims: "You've never seen so much money in your life!"

The pair, both stars of Channel 5's new reality show The Great British Benefits Handout (GBBH), are staring in shock at a briefcase filled with £26,000. Tony and Diane are middle-aged and haven't worked in their adult lives, making up just two of the UK's 638,000 long-term unemployed. The money is theirs on the proviso that they and their 21-year-old son, a quiet furry boy named Michael, get off the dole. The idea of this "social experiment", we're told, is to see if the family, currently living on £6,000 a year in state benefits, can pull themselves out of worklessness with a sum of money the narrator says "could turn their lives around".

Before the money arrived, they were turned down for every job they applied for. Diane believes this is because they don't look employable and don't have the money to smarten up. It's about more than aesthetics, though; their terraced house is falling apart at its dampened seams and a sense of futility has driven the pair into a deep depression.

Channel 5 is here to give the couple, along with two other lucky families, a route out of their reliance on benefits. Opening with shots of endless council estates and David Cameron's party conference speech on how a life of benefits "must be rubbed out", the voiceover declares: "The war on welfare is well and truly on."

If we're calling it a war on welfare, then we're used to hearing about "difficult decisions" and "necessary cuts" from the dominant forces. This is the equivalent of a frontline report from the other side, but Tony and Diane's daily drudgery and ennui doesn't make for smart soundbites. So to make for more entertaining viewing, GBBH makes it a game, using three families that easily slot into three Daily Express-defined stereotypes of white British people on benefits: the long-term unemployed, the single mum and the family who have more kids than is deemed necessary (as a third child myself, I'm certainly not saying third and fourth children unnecessary, but it's an ideology cemented in government-enforced policy; any family welcoming in a third child in 2017 will not be eligible for tax credits for them or any subsequent children).

There's no doubt that a social experiment of this sort could be valuable. Finland is considering give a universal income of 800 euros a month to its citizens and several Dutch cities will roll this out in 2017. The UK has already enacted a version of this policy, by allowing retirees to claim their pension in an upfront sum rather than annuities.

The maximum annual amount the Government will be giving to benefit-claiming households is £26,000,as of this spring, hence the sum received by the families involved. They don't get any advice on how to spend the money, but GBBH has three experts on hand to comment at a distance. There's Honey, a psychologist, Lee, a benefits expert from a financial advice site Income Max, and Professor Guy Standing, who has previously worked on schemes like this with impoverished people in Canada and India, "where no-strings-attached payments have changed lives".

Every narrative needs an obstacle in the middle, especially in reality TV. In Grand Designs, the concrete-lined extension loses planning permission; in Bake Off, there's a collapsed mousse. But in GBBH the struggle starts at the beginning. These aren't people inventing problems for drama, they're simply trying to live better lives and create workable prospects for their children.

So initially, Liverpudlian couple Leanne and Scott might seem blasé with their spending. Scott's a trained electrician, but the couple chooses to invest in a raccoon and an inflatable slide for a party-planning business. It might seem careless, but £26,000 won't stretch to much childcare for their mentally disabled son, it at least seems to make sense that they are looking to work from home.

Meanwhile single mum-of-three Rachel's story is much more plain; she celebrates the money with friends at a Chinese buffet, followed by meticulous budget planning so as to settle previous debts. She is emphatic that "the last thing I want to happen is for my kids to go on benefits".

When Benefits Street came out in 2014, there were complaints that it was exploitative 'poverty porn'. But others felt it was a much-needed look into the lives of people that the Great British Public have so many opinions on, and so little first-hand experience of. However, GBBH's twist – to televise what is sold as a lottery win – means this show isn't simply a window to a section of society that is underrepresented on television. There is an underlying narrative, which seems to be that these downtrodden guinea pigs must not only appear grateful for their sudden lifestyle change but turn it into gold, despite the high deprivation and job scarcity in the areas where they live. If they are able to make it work, it shows the benefits system was holding them back; if they fail to do so, it shows that even with a lump cash sum, they couldn't amount to anything.

Either way, you can't help but balk at the tastelessness of turning this into a reality TV format that plays out more like a win-or-lose game than the social experiment it purports to be.

@sophwilkinson

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