Poor people. Everyone’s talking about them. Who are they? What do they look like? And is it their own stupid fault if they’re increasingly resorting to food banks? A special night of programming on BBC1, kicking off the Cost of Living season, tried to find out by dropping in on some of Britain’s impoverished families, waving a magic wand that turned out to be a stick.
The main event was Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits (Thursdays BBC1, iPlayer), a complex and loaded title for the reunion of Alan Sugar’s original supergrasses. Episode one saw four people who have jobs each shadowing someone who doesn’t. At the end they gave a verdict on whether the jobless person’s benefits were too generous. It was an orgy of chivvying and chastising, as the “claimants” had their lives scrutinised by the “taxpayers”.
Nick and Margaret joined in, opening the show by visiting each feckless shirker, then judging them in the back of a black cab (natch) on the way to see the next one. “She’s fallen into that laissez-faire attitude,” drawled Nick when discussing Kelly, a single mother he suspected could be trying harder to find part-time work. “I felt rather sorry for him,” reflected Margaret after meeting full-time dad Luther, who’d been unemployed for 20 years. “He’s a very likeable person. He’s a bit hopeless, but then that’s the sort of person the system’s supposed to look after, isn’t it?”
But Nick and Margaret’s familiar weary suspicion, wrinkling their noses as if smelling gas, was nothing compared to the “taxpayers”. Here was a stark illustration of how deeply strivers vs skivers rhetoric has hit home. That bitter prurience that leads people who are dissatisfied with their lot to want to make others suffer too – up close, it was ugly to the point of being darkly comic.
Having already been appalled that Kelly was keeping several pets, cleaning company boss Debbie walked a quarter-step behind her in the supermarket, questioning her habit of giving her kids a hot dinner when they’d already had a free hot lunch at school. Forget the billions gambled away by bankers, reserved for new nuclear weapons or lost in unpaid corporation tax. At primetime on BBC1 we were in the Ipswich Asda, watching one woman telling another she was buying too many 15p cans of spaghetti hoops. (Debbie also confidently critiqued Kelly’s purchase of a whole chicken, saying fillets are better value because you’re not paying for the bones.)
Care nurse Stevie took recent graduate Liam round the shops in Ipswich town centre, prompting him to hand over his CV and barracking him for having his heart set on something that would utilise his degree. None of the places they visited actually had a vacancy.
Thirty-five minutes in, Nick and Margaret visited a bloke from the London School of Economics. He dropped the bombshell that only 10% of the benefits budget goes on the unemployed – one of those curious moments where a factual programme suddenly includes a fact that calls the programme itself into question, after which everyone carries on as if nothing has happened.
But once you’ve decided benefit claimants are the main problem, attitudes are hard to shift. Stevie wasn’t swayed by the news that Liam only claimed basic Jobseekers Allowance and did valuable volunteer work – he should get a job. Luther’s oppo, Cheryl, skated past his chronic lung problems and bemoaned that she receives less money than “somebody who’s not physically putting something into the community”. Only Kris, a strong and conscientious dad who was applying for 15 jobs a day, made any impact: to do that, he had to break down and cry at the shame he felt when he saw his son looking to him as a role model.
Some viewers might have had preconceptions about flat-screen tellies and armies of brats altered, even if most of the “taxpayers” on screen didn’t. But this was still Daily Mail TV, setting poor people tests to see if they were deserving, and choosing its participants for maximum conflict. The people with jobs looked to be below the average for earnings as well as compassion: that low wages and/or high rents might be a cause of their resentment didn’t fit the narrative.
“Maybe cutting benefits would incentivise Kelly to go out there and get a job,” mused Nick Hewer, before the black cab arrived to take him safely home.
Before Nick and Margaret came the celebrity chefs. In the one-off Great British Budget Menu, we met people who were struggling to feed themselves even with assistance from food banks. Hard-nosed taxpayers might have considered them worthy of sympathy, since they were all working or retired. Still, the programme’s focus was again on correcting the paupers’ errant behaviour: the cooks off the telly would show it was possible to make delicious, nutritious meals on meagre means.
Rather instructively, they failed. James Martin visited Patrick, an Irish pensioner who was resolutely charming and humble and regularly having half a Cup-a-Soup for tea. Martin went shopping locally, hunting hard for bargains, then cooked Patrick a chicken curry, his favourite. He was well over Patrick’s real-life budget. Richard Corrigan had an idea that a family in Mansfield ought to be buying a whole fresh salmon and taking it from there. No.
After these false starts, the contrived finale: a cook-off attended by politicians and supermarket execs, who were vaguely grilled about special offers and shelf arrangements, while the chefs and their new protégés made meals for everyone at £1 a head. The sun shone and each family was given an A4 ring binder full of cheap recipes before being sent on their way. But the cardamom-spiced rice in Angela Hartnett’s winning dish, and the curious insistence on putting meat in everything, suggested that realistic, untelegenic cheap eats were off the table. Facing up to how difficult it is to be poor was not on the menu.