No such thing as Benefits Street – says Teesside University researcher

The idea of ‘welfare ghettos’ with whole streets where nobody works has been exposed as a myth in a new publication by a Teesside University academic.

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Professor Rob MacDonald.

Professor Rob MacDonald.

Benefits streets, where families have never worked over generations and unemployment is a preferred way of life simply don’t exist, argues Professor Rob MacDonald, of Teesside University.

Instead, even in the most deprived areas, usually the majority of residents are not workless - most households contain people who have jobs and the younger generation show a desire and determination to gain employment.

The notion that streets and neighbourhoods exist where the majority of people are unemployed and living on benefits was the rationale for Channel 4’s Benefits Street, which has recently begun filming its second series in Stockton’s Dixon Street.

The programme was met with tabloid headlines that said that ‘90% of residents on hand-outs’ and ‘the street where 9 out of 10 households are on welfare.’

But Professor MacDonald, a Professor of Sociology, says even those figures about the now notorious James Turner Street in Birmingham are a far cry from reality.

Along with Professor Tracy Shildrick from Leeds University and Professor Andy Furlong from Glasgow University, he has released a paper entitled ‘Benefits Street and the Myth of Workless Communities.’

The research, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, examined two working class neighbourhoods with high rates of worklessness and social deprivation, which had suffered economic decline – one in Glasgow and one in Middlesbrough. A total of 20 families – 47 people – took part in the study across the two locations. One of the aims was to find out whether some popular ideas about the unemployed are actually myths.

Professor MacDonald said: 'In seeking neighbourhoods to test out the ideas, we selected areas with very high levels of worklessness – perhaps like the makers of Benefits Street.

'Even with these extreme cases, the majority of local people of working age were not on unemployment benefits. This is a far cry from the situation where an entire community sits on benefits for life.'

In James Turner Street, the Birmingham location chosen for the first series of Benefits Street, recent statistics have shown that between 62% and 65% of households have somebody in employment – in other words 35% to 38% of households could be described as workless.

Professor MacDonald, who with Professor Shildrick, was recently awarded the Sociological Review Prize for his paper Poverty Talk, added: 'In this sense, James Turner Street is very similar to the neighbourhoods we researched in Glasgow and Middlesbrough.

'Even in the most extreme cases, most residents were not workless and most households contained people in jobs.'

Of the younger people from the sample who did not have jobs, most had siblings who were in employment and they had a wide network of friends and relatives who worked.

Professor MacDonald explained: 'This throws into doubt theories that rely on the idea that individuals are so swamped by negative role models and so bereft of positive examples of people in jobs that they learn that worklessness is the norm and to be preferred.

'The idea of 'benefit ghettos' where unemployment is a 'lifestyle choice' is a powerful one that helps justify the government's cuts to welfare budgets. Yet our research has demonstrated that this is a myth, in the sense that it does not reflect the facts of the matter.

'If a culture of worklessness cannot be found in the extremely deprived neighbourhoods we studied, then they are unlikely to explain more general patterns of worklessness in the UK.'

12 September 2014

In the News

The real world isn't like Benefits Street
The Week, 20/09/2014, p.17
Researchers from Teesside University spent months looking into the issue, concluding that the welfare ghetto is a myth.

Iain Duncan Smith and the tall tale of the feckless layabouts, 12/09/2014
Writer and broadcaster Gavin Esler produced a book, Lessons From the Top, chronicling how some of the biggest names in politics and showbiz built their careers on the crafting of stories.

Benefit streets are all a myth
Daily Star, 13/09/2014; Daily Star - Lancs, 13/09/2014; Daily Star of Scotland, 13/09/2014; The Evening Gazette, 13/09/2014; The Northern Echo, 13/09/2014;
Areas of jobless scroungers like those depicted on TV's Benefits street are a myth.

Ellene Jones keeping up
Independent on Sunday, 14/09/2014, pg 13
No such thing as Benefits Street.

Benefits Street culture: study rubbishes 'joblessness as a lifestyle' claim, 11/09/2014
The idea of a Benefits Street-style culture of joblessness, with generations of families never having worked, appears not to be backed by any evidence, academics have concluded.

So-called 'welfare ghettos' with whole communities on benefites, are a myth, researchers say
The Independent Online, 12/09/2014; I - Indpendent Online, 12/09/2014; The Guardian, 12/09/2014; The Independent, 12/09/2014; The Gazette Live - Online, 12/09/2014; EIN News, 12/09/2014; BBC News Online, 12/09/2014;, 12/09/2014
The idea of welfare ghettos where whole communities are workless is a myth, according to research by leading academics.