It’s easy to hate ‘poverty porn’ but harder to fight inequality

By Kim Allen, Manchester Metropolitan University and Daniel Silver, University of Manchester

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George Osborne’s recent announcement that households would receive personalised “annual tax statements” allowing them to track how their taxes are spent has been heavily criticised as manipulative and cynical. Defended by the chancellor as an “unprecedented” move to create a more transparent and accountable government for “hard working” Britons, the Trades Union Congress described the statements as “party propaganda masquerading as neutral information”.

Pitting “hard working tax payers” against “lazy” benefits claimants, Osborne’s latest move is just another manifestation of the concerted cultivation of the “shirker vs striver” rhetoric that has come to define debates about welfare across the political realm.

Such sentiments have particular weight in the context of an unprecedented decimation of the welfare state, where attempts to reduce the deficit have coalesced around reducing social security rather than higher taxation for the (ever-growing) rich, cracking down on tax evasion or tackling low pay and in-work poverty.

‘Poverty porn’ on TV

The demonisation of “welfare scroungers” has perhaps been best illustrated in a new genre of television programming that has emerged over the last two years. TV shows including Channel 4’s Benefits Street, Channel 5’s On Benefits and Proud, and BBC3’s People like Us, have become regular features of prime time viewing schedules. Now Channel 4 is resisting calls to axe its latest contribution to the genre – Immigration Street. The shows generate intense online debate and media coverage, fuelling public anxieties about a supposedly over-generous welfare system.

Despite being defended by TV executives as accurate portrayals of life in communities with high levels of poverty, and cited by leading politicians such as Iain Duncan Smith as evidence of “Broken Britain”, these shows have been subject to much resistance.

Several of these shows have been condemned by people from the communities at their centre, who feel they have been misrepresented and manipulated by TV producers, their lives put on display for entertainment by an industry valuing profit and ratings over honest programme-making. They have also been identified by academics as part of the apparatus that is used to generate consent for welfare reforms.

The struggles taking place over these programmes formed the motivation for a public event that we hosted in Manchester in early November. The event brought together academics, activists, community groups and the public to discuss why these shows have emerged, what significance they have in the context of growing inequality within “austerity Britain”, and how we might challenge them.

Agenda controlled by elites

As sociologist Tracey Jensen has argued, debates around “poverty porn” alert us to a crisis in political and cultural representation. Both of these powerful institutions – mainstream politics and the media industry – are composed of privileged elites, near impossible to access if you lack the resources to work for free, the contacts, and the “right” degree from the “right” university.

What hope is there for democratic, empathetic and critical television if cultural production is dominated by people drawn from a narrow social class who are far removed from the realities of poverty?

Then there is the absence of the wider context of poverty and inequality within these programmes. Focusing on the individual behaviour and “journeys” of participants, the shows neglect and obscure the systemic challenges and compounding disadvantages that people face. Poverty porn television programmes are not observational documentaries that provide analysis, but are supposed to be “factual entertainment”. Is it naïve to expect them be interested in accurate, critical and empathetic representations?

Social and grass-roots media have an important role in providing opportunities for resistant and critical portrays of life in poverty. But these arguably remain small scale, particularly when, as sociologist Imogen Tyler has argued, cultural production is monopolised by a small number of powerful global media corporations with vested interests in these kinds of cheap and highly profitable programmes.

While it is clear that these shows fabricate, manipulate and misrepresent the lives of those they depict, it is important to recognise that there is a certain reality to these programmes. Some might feel that critics gloss over this in the efforts to critique cultural representations of poverty. But we must consider whether academics and other critics are at risk of romanticising communities with high levels of poverty in ways that risk denying the complex challenges that exist within them.

Where next?

The popularity of our public event and the discussions that have continued in its aftermath provide evidence of the appetite for critical conversations about the connections between seemingly trivial TV programmes and the dismantling of the welfare state.

There is no doubt that poverty porn is used to undermine the welfare system. But there are no answers yet to fundamental questions about inequality in society. Stereotypes of people in poverty become the frame through which social security is designed by politicians and civil servants.

As we head towards an election, we must hope that progressive parties challenge both the misrepresentation of people in poverty and deliver policies that can affect the challenging realities that people face. Rejecting the divisive rhetoric of “shirker vs. striver” that has come to saturate the cultural and political register would be a useful starting point.


Kim Allen receives funding from the ESRC and the British Academy.

Daniel Silver works for the Social Action & Research Foundation. He receives ESRC funding for his PhD.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Congratulations to James Duggan – CCN+ Seed Fund Award

Congratulations to James Duggan, who has won a seed fund from the Communities and Culture Network (CCN+) for the project ‘Sans Duty – Making Tax Visible.’ James will work with Joseph Lindley (Highwire Centre, Lancaster University) and the Brixton Pound local currency community.

The Sans Duty project uses a design fiction approach to interrogate the complex relationship between tax and local communities, exploring with community members the ethical and practical issues in implementing a grassroots, community-led, digital, transparent system around the payment of tax. The Sans Duty project will work with communities to explore how they can use digital technologies to build local economic resilience through the tax system.

Tax is a significant social and economic issue in the UK and internationally. The payment of tax is currently seen as economic, private, hidden and opaque. One consequence is that through, for example, business norms that deny the moral imperative to pay tax and processes of economic de-regulation and liberalisation businesses can operate in the UK but avoid paying tax by ‘offshoring’ profits (Urry 2014). The tax gap, describes the amount of tax owed but not paid in the UK, is estimated to be between £35bn and £125bn (Tax Research UK 2012). The dynamics and consequences are complex but manifest in local areas such as Brixton, where this project is based, in terms of the unfair commercial advantage to companies that do not pay national corporate tax contributing to the death of the ‘independent’ high street through an increase of chain stores and franchises (Potts et al 2005), and the rise of Internet ‘delivery’ services such as Amazon (Urry 2014).

The Sans Duty project’s response to this complex issue is cross-disciplinary and innovative. Ranciere’s (2010) concept of the sans papiers illuminates those who are ‘present but not part’ of a community, such as undocumented workers. The concepts of the police and the distribution of the sensible explain how the politico-aesthetic field of a community divide those who belong to a community, can benefit from political rights or not, are literally seen and heard or not (Rockhill 2010). Following on from this, Ranciere argues that democratic emancipation is possible by making the invisible and inaudible, seen and heard in conditions of equality. We invert the focus of sans papiers from undocumented workers to the businesses that are present in the UK but not part of the community in that they do not pay national corporate tax. We label these businesses the sans duty. We seek to explore how communities can utilise digital technologies to initiate bottom-up processes to redistribute the sensible by re-configuring the politico-aesthetic field of the community in relation to the payment of tax, more simply making the payment of tax a visible social good.

Critical design and design fiction were selected as the methodological approach for developing the intervention. Critical design shifts design’s relationship with existing and preferred situations (Simon, 1969). In critical modes design projects accept and build upon the inherently plural nature of ‘futures’. In doing so the design process becomes part of a ‘research through design’ process (Frayling, 1993). Inspired by art, design and activism these practices provide novel representations of complex social issues by, for example, representing structural causes of inequality in the local, challenging and provoking society to change (DiSalvo 2010), which here is exploring and re-configuring a community’s relationship to tax. Design fiction is a close relative of critical design, in particular because of a mutual realisation that the future is plural, and in its speculative form it provides ‘a counterpoint to the world around us and encouraging us to see that everyday life could be different’ (Dunne and Raby 2013). Design fictions combine elements of science fiction, science fact and design (Bleecker, 2009) in order to ‘suspend disbelief about change’ (Sterling, 2009). Design fiction has matured around the realisation that science fiction has an uncanny ability to prototype the ‘technology of the future’ (albeit within a fictional world). Using design fiction to do ‘research through design’, speculating with fictional prototypes serves as stimulus for conversation and comprehension about where preferable futures sit on the spectrum of possibilities.

The project will bring together members of the B£ community to reflect on this issue and then co-produce a docudrama depicting a near future scenario where the open, visible tax system exists to explore and engage with the intended and unintended consequences.

Kim Allen on Radio Manchester

ESRI’s Kim Allen joined Daniel Silver (Social Action Research Foundation) on Mike Sweeney’s BBC Radio Manchester show today. (Click on the link and listen from 1hr 11mins.)

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The two were on the show defending level-headed decency while also promoting the event they are hosting:

Does ‘Poverty Porn’ undermine the Welfare State?

Thursday 6th November, 17:00-20:00 @ Z-Arts, Hulme, Manchester

This event, co-hosted by Social Action & Research Foundation (SARF) and Dr Kim Allen, Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), will focus on the relationship between welfare policy and media representations of poverty. It will be informed by recent debates about so-called ‘poverty porn’. Presented as ‘documentary’ and referenced by coalition politicians as evidence for the need for welfare reform, these programmes raise questions on the impact of stigmatising media portrayals of poverty on government policy and public attitudes towards welfare. We will have panel discussions with the media, politicians, academics and people from the wider community.