‘Poverty Porn’

by James Fawcett January 31, 2014 A

This term has been bouncing around but was recently heard in a debate this week about the Channel 4 program ‘Benefits Street’, it was mentioned in the context of other programs like The Jeremy Kyle Show, Shameless and Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. ‘Poverty Porn’ is a genre that follows those that are seen as disadvantaged, telling their stories – the serious issues that these people are facing on a daily basis. These programs can positively represent the people featured, bringing their needs into the wider public consciousness.

Equally, these programs/shows/documentaries can glamorise the issues these people face. Television becomes a form of voyeurism of poverty. This raises some questions.

Sadly we regularly see the difficult issues that young people are facing, glamourised –  not just by the media but by those working with them. Reported criminal and sexual behaviour, or poverty ‘facts’ which are exaggerated, misrepresentative or just plain old lies. 

This only serves to further oppress those most vulnerable in our society. It belittles the real and significant problems that young people actually are facing, which aren't glamorous enough for media or funders.

Speaking to a Director of a Christian youth work charity in London recently who said that he felt it is  a ‘funders market’. This is a telling observation. He meant that funders are currently holding the power.

In an attempt to portray the ‘need’ we see as workers, there is the temptation to expand and embellish the truth, to justify our work and convince those with the power that we deserve the money.

This can lead to glamorisation of the poverty or even a competition – ‘my area is worse than your area’. How many shootings were in your borough last month? – ours is the highest for teenage pregnancy etc. We can wear these tragedies like badges.

Rev Steve Chalke from Oasis Trust, has a school in the vicinity of ‘Benefits Street. In this BBC debate  he said that the street as portrayed in the program is simply not the street he ‘knows’.

How many times we have thought that about our own streets. When we write out a funding form full of questionable ‘statistics’ and ‘stories’ do we recognise the place we are describing? When we are honest with ourselves, our funders and our media – surely the truth is actually worrying enough – and isn’t that why we are doing our jobs after all?

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