Dole animators take battle to poverty porn brokers

Dole animators take battle to poverty porn brokers

Ruth Patrick reports on how a group of people in Leeds are using their own experience of life on benefits to challenge negative stereotypes.

This week saw the last episode of the latest series of Benefits Street, just one of the many programmes littering our TV schedules that promise to reveal ‘what it’s really like’ to rely on benefits in Britain today. Such shows, what some call ‘Poverty Porn’, arguably contribute to a dominant portrayal of ‘welfare’, and those who rely on it for all or most of their income as inherently problematic. Benefits are typically characterised as a ‘lifestyle choice’, with policy approaches locating the blame and responsibility for poverty and benefits reliance with individual claimants. This dominant narrative is disseminated through ‘Poverty Porn’, but also via a government rhetoric that repeatedly stigmatises people on benefits. Whether it’s Duncan Smith describing people ‘languishing’ on ‘welfare’, or the constant drip freed of negative characterisations of claimants in the media, it’s a portrayal that has clear traction, at least if public opinion surveys are anything to go by. These surveys suggest that attitudes to those on out-of-work benefits are hardening, something further evidenced by the rise in hate crimes against disabled people.

The mainstream consensus on welfare is problematic not just because of the impact it has on those who rely on benefits, who must contend with stigmatisation and stereotyping alongside their financial hardship, but because it is fundamentally incorrect. There is an enormous Grand Canyon-sized gap between the dominant narrative on welfare and lived realities for those struggling to ‘get by’ on benefits during times of welfare reform. As part of their ongoing efforts to shine light on this gap, a group of claimants and former claimants in Leeds – who call themselves the Dole Animators – came together earlier this month to challenge the mainstream rhetoric on ‘welfare’.

At the event, the group, which includes disabled people, single parents and young jobseekers, shared their individual experiences on benefits. Their experiences starkly clash with a characterisation of out-of-work benefit claimants as passive, idle, and work-shy. Isobella, a disabled woman living with rheumatoid arthritis, told attendees, which included politicians, local policy makers, teachers and advice workers:

In 2003, I moved to Leeds from London. That was a lifestyle choice.
In 2006, I retrained as an aromatherapist, financing myself through college while working part-time. That was a lifestyle choice.
In 2007, I started my aromatherapy business and became self-employed. That was a lifestyle choice.
In 2008, I was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis, and started claiming disability benefits. That was not a lifestyle choice.

The event also heard from Professor Tracy Shildrick and from Lisa Pickard of the Real Life Reform research project . Both showed how their research busts ‘welfare myths’ such as the idea that people on benefits choose not to work, and illustrated the negative impacts of the government’s welfare reforms.

In their ongoing efforts to undermine these myths, and counter the rhetoric of government and reality TV shows that treat poverty and deprivation as sources of light entertainment, the Dole Animators have launched a campaign to challenge benefits stigma. The group explained: “Our experiences of benefits, low-paid work and welfare reform do not fit most of what you see and hear about people on benefits in newspapers, on TV, and from politicians. This needs to change.”

The ‘stop/start campaign’ calls on politicians, the media, and the public more broadly to stop stigmatising people on benefits and instead start listening to the views and experiences of benefit claimants, as the real experts on the impact and lived realities of welfare reform. Against a climate of enduring hostility to benefit claimants, the Dole Animators’ readiness to stand up and provide a counter to ‘Poverty Porn’ is invaluable.

Find out more about the dole animators and sign up to the campaign. 

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