We Need “Poverty Porn” on American TV

Daniel J. Mitchell
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Posted: Jan 25, 2014 12:01 AM
We Need “Poverty Porn” on American TV

When I posted a video about “libertarian porn” back in 2010, readers presumably were either relieved or disappointed that there was no nudity.

Heck, even my libertarian sex jokes don’t involve sex, so I doubt I’ll be in much demand at comedy clubs.

I may get the same reaction today, because we’re going to have a discussion – but only G-rated – about what our British friends are referring to as “poverty porn.”

More specifically, that’s the term that’s being used for television reality shows in the United Kingdom that expose welfare fraud. Here are some excerpts from a story in U.S. News & World Report.

A shoplifter, a recovering drug addict and a young couple barely able to feed their kids are among the stars of “Benefits Street” — a smash hit reality show featuring welfare recipients that has stirred up a storm of controversy in Britain. The program zooms in on a rough Birmingham street where 9 out of 10 people are said to live off state payouts, chronicling over five episodes the lives of jobless neighbors as they struggle with their daily problems. …Britain’s welfare state has long been a subject of pride among many Britons, but these days attitudes toward benefits have hardened — and polls suggest that support for pouring taxpayer money into welfare, especially for the young, is at a record low. British tabloids are replete with hysteria stories about unemployed people buying flat-screen TVs and designer goods using welfare funds. And “Benefits Street” is the hottest in a growing genre of reality shows about the poor that has been dubbed “poverty porn” because of its sensationalist nature. Even the sober BBC has jumped on the bandwagon with a documentary called “Britain on the Fiddle,” which set out to catch benefits fraudsters in the act on camera. …The “poverty porn” trend comes as Prime Minister David Cameron’s government tries to overhaul the benefits system.

By the way, if you want examples of the “hysteria stories” in the “tabloids,” check out Natailija, Tracey, Anjem, and Gina and Danny.

You’ll understand why I wrote that, “if there was a welfare Olympics, the U.K. would have a lot more medals.”

Anyhow, the good news is that politicians in the United Kingdom are finally taking some measures to rein in the welfare state. I don’t know if it’s because television programs are exposing waste and fraud, but it’s clearly good news since welfare spending has exploded over the past 10-plus years in the UK.

Here’s part of a report in the Telegraph.

In a speech that seeks to build on “extraordinary” jobless figures, the Work and Pensions Secretary will promise to end the “twilight world” of entire communities that are reliant on benefits. …Mr Duncan Smith will warn that there are still benefits-dependent areas that “for the most part remain out of sight”. Sources suggested that this is a reference to communities such as the one seen on Benefits Street, a Channel 4 documentary, and said that he was on “a crusade to rescue Benefits Street Britain”. “I have long believed there is no kindness in a benefits system that traps people, leaving them in a twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create,” Mr Duncan Smith will say. …A Conservative government wants to ensure that welfare is “a journey that people are on, rather than a destination where they stay”, he will add.

I’ll withhold judgement on whether the squishy Cameron government actually is doing something good in this area, but I’m glad that there’s at least pressure for positive change.

Which is why we need some “poverty porn” in America.

Maybe that would be a wake-up call for our politicians on how the welfare state creates a poverty trap and erodes social capital (something that a few honest liberals have acknowledged).

P.S. In an example of sloppy/biased journalism, the U.S. News article states that “The show has struck a strong chord in a nation…still reeling from its most brutal austerity measures in a generation, with basic public services trimmed drastically.” Why is that passage biased and/or sloppy? Well, because as I had to explain to Paul Krugman, there hasn’t been any genuine austerity in the United Kingdom.

P.P.S. The story in the Telegraph also contains this passage.

The number of people in work rose by 280,000 in the past three months to a record 30.15?million, the biggest quarterly increase in employment on record. Minutes released by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee said that the “tightening in the eligibility requirements for some state benefits might have led to an intensification of job search”. Mr Duncan Smith claimed that the comments were a tacit endorsement of his welfare reform programme. He said the Bank of England, led by Mark Carney, now believed that the welfare reforms had contributed to the dramatic fall in unemployment.

In other words, this Michael Ramirez cartoon is correct. The numbers from the UK are evidence – in addition to all this evidence – that people are more likely to find jobs when they can’t rely on taxpayer handouts.

P.P.P.S. If “poverty porn” changes the political environment, it could mean the end of the Moocher Hall of Fame.