By Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can read more posts by Richard here.
You may have heard that there’s a television show called Benefits Street, which promises to reveal “the reality of life on benefits”, neatly wrapped in episodic, half-hour, commercial-interspersed packages. The show – like all good things – has earned the right to be called “polarising” by the media. But it also throws up (in both senses) a number of questions with which political theorists of justice frequently grapple.
Many have already questioned whether ‘benefits claimants’ are portrayed fairly, accurately or ethically in the show. But there is surely something more deeply questionable about the concept of Benefits Street. What is it, we might ask, that makes the residents of Benefits Street different from the rest of ‘us’? Is it fair, in other words, to set apart (let alone demonise) a person, or a community in terms of the benefits they receive?
This, after all, is one of the unsaid premises of the show, and why it has generated the discussion that it has. ‘We’ are looking at how ‘they’ live, and having ‘our’ say on it. But what makes the ‘us’ and the ‘them’? One response might be to emphasise that it is not the benefits that really matter at all, but rather the fact that many of the residents are out of work. What makes them different, some might (and do) say is that they (unlike ‘us’) are ‘non-contributors’. Those of us in work are giving back to society somehow, by way of income taxes – and perhaps – by way of the labour we expend.
However, whilst contribution is clearly part of the story of Benefits Street, it doesn’t fully explain the focus of the show, and the benefits panic on which it draws (and feeds). After all, many of the residents of Benefits Street do work – as do many millions of benefits claimants nationally. And indeed, the common vernacular doesn’t talk of ‘non-contributors’ but rather ‘benefits claimants’, ‘people on benefits’ and worse, ‘benefits scroungers’. It is illustrative, I would suggest, that the show is called Benefits Street, and not ‘Non-contributors Street’.
In contemporary terms then, it is increasingly the receipt of benefits that operates as the primary frame for the issue of welfare, rather than one’s level of contribution. In the emerging ‘makers’ vs ‘takers’ narrative – the successful mark themselves out as different not only in terms of their contribution, but also in terms of their not taking from the state. In this world-view, the very act of claiming benefits is seen as deplorable in itself – as one’s being ‘on the take’ somehow, or worse ‘dependent’ or ‘reliant’ on the state.
This view seems problematic in many ways, but even if we do it the courtesy of taking it seriously, does it really allow us to mark the residents of Benefits Street as different from the rest of society? This seems doubtful. Take an apparently unrelated example: The Coalition’s flagship ‘Help to Buy Policy’. This loan scheme enables middle income citizens to purchase houses, and drives national home values up in the process. Putting aside the questions of whether inflating another housing bubble is good economics, it’s worth noting that this policy can itself be seen as a kind of hand-out. Being debt funded, the Government is essentially borrowing from future taxpayers. This money is then transferred to purchasers of homes, and indirectly to existing owners of property through rising prices. Thus thanks to Help to Buy the owner of a £1,000,000 property in London might see its value rise by 10% (a year!) as a result. This is to say they will receive, in effect, a bonus of £100,000 paid for by tomorrow’s taxpayer (including, of course, the residents of Benefits Street). A financial benefit from the state, we might say.
Now this is not to say that this is necessarily problematic. It might well be good to support the housing market, and encourage home ownership. But what it does illustrate is the way in which redistributive benefits – by many other names – are claimed by all strata of society. Indeed, almost every economic policy worth writing is redistributive in some degree. When Royal Mail was privatised, for example, a public asset – owned by all citizens – was sold off cheaply to predominantly wealthy investors, or the pensions funds they invest in. Here too is the redistribution of wealth from one section of society to another. However, we see rather less moral panic when the recipients of these transfers are wealthy individuals and (perversely?) when the quantities of money involved run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds, rather than, say, the £56 a week the unemployed residents Benefits Street receive in JSA.
And once we think about it, these kinds of redistributive benefits are surely only the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t the point of society that everyone benefits? This at least is what most political theorists from Hobbes to Rawls have argued. Even those at the top of society benefit greatly from the state, to the extent that they are arguably just as dependent on it. Many business owners object loudly at this kind of sentiment. They, after all, built their firms with their own hard work and initiative, earning the wealth and security that goes with it. But surely in a very real sense they are just as dependent as the residents of Benefits Street. Would their business exist without the infrastructure they use for deliveries? Would their business exist without someone educating the staff that they employ, or healing them when they fall ill? Would their business exist without someone regulating their competitors and supplies, such that neither can cripple them through foul-play or error? Would their business exist without, for that matter, without someone managing a growing stable economy in which they can sell their goods? If such business-people are to blame the state when it mishandles the economy, then they must surely accept that it enables their industry when it manages it properly.
Of course, none of this is to say that we might not question whether the state ought to be providing these goods, benefits and security. As Robert Nozick famously argued – the fact that an individual benefits from something might not justify our providing it to them without their consent. Perhaps free markets can provide all of the above, as effectively and with less coercion?
But note that this is a totally different question. What we are interested in is whether the residents of Benefits Street are unique in their relationship with the state. And it seems difficult to see how they are. Instead, what we see is how the receipt of a particular kind of benefit is being marked out as controversial, or deplorable. And how convenient that it be that which is received by the most vulnerable in society.
Of course, we ought not to conclude from this that no-one has the right to believe or act as if ‘benefits claiming’ is condemnable somehow. But what it does imply is that we had better be prepared to take our own snouts out of the trough when we do so. Otherwise the sound we make is likely to be rather revolting.
 Declaration of interest: Like most young(ish) scholars, the author has received a range of welfare benefits at different points in time.
 Of course, talk of ‘contribution’ in this fashion is horribly problematic. First, of course, not all individuals or communities have equal ability to contribute. For starters, most developed economies choose to maintain mass unemployment as a policy tool to fight inflation. Secondly though, society’s notion of what contribution means seems far too reliant on what it is that the market applies a price to. Thus on conventional measures a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother would be ‘contributing’ to society quite handsomely, whereas a mother (or father) who spent a day raising a child, supporting a working spouse and caring for an elderly relative would be seen to contribute nothing.
 This phenomenon mirrors that of our focus on the frantic chasing down of ‘benefits cheats’, and our relatively relaxed attitudes towards tax evasion by the super-rich.