There's a nuanced debate on welfare waiting to happen, and Benefits Britain 1949 isn't it

Channel 4's Benefits Britain 1949 asked modern benefits claimants to live under conditions from 1949 - the reason being, what exactly?

When it comes to the welfare state, it’s clear there’s a conversation to be had. There needs to be an unpicking of the false dichotomy between "workers" and people on benefits. There needs to be a shift away from the focus on capping benefits to providing a living wage. There’s a nuanced debate waiting about how disabled people can be given the right support to work. That’s why, last night, Channel 4 decided to dedicate an hour of prime time television to asking an unemployed, sick woman to lift a potato and to making an old man cry.

For anyone who didn’t see Benefits Britain 1949 – and as it happens, chose not to enter the televisual equivalent of beating themselves around the head with a blunt object – the programme charged itself with seeing how present day benefit claimants would cope with the welfare system as it was when it was first introduced. “Does it point a way out of this current crisis?” the narrator asked. Well no, of course not, but don’t let that stop you.

It was as if Channel 4 had been hired by the Department for Work and Pensions to summarise government rhetoric for anyone who hadn’t been paying attention the past year or so. In sum, people on benefits should not only be pitted against "workers", but each other.

There was "Good Claimant": a visibly disabled man who wanted to work. Craig used a wheelchair due to spina bifida and although in the past few years he’d applied for hundreds of jobs, he’d been given none. There was "Harmless Claimant": an old man called Mervyn who lives on a state pension. There was "Bad Claimant": a long-term sick woman with an overtly working class accent. Karen had a range of conditions (like arthritis and heart problems) that are hidden and therefore "don’t count", and she had been on sick benefits for seven years.

Karen had styled hair, acrylic nails, and Egyptian style figurines in her house. This was, apparently, evidence that her benefits were too high and that, probably, she was faking her illnesses. I should mention at this point that Karen was fat. There was a moment, about when the camera brushed past Karen’s stomach to focus on her brightly polished nails. It felt as though, rather than a 1940s test, we were supposed to be craving a Daily Mail-led dystopian future – where benefits are awarded proportionate to a claimant's weight and how neat their appearance is. ("Had your hair done in the last six weeks?" "She's fat too! Fatty! She's a fatty!")

Karen was soon told to do a series of "1949 tests" like lifting a potato or using scissors in order to show she was fit for some kind of employment. Like working in a potato origami factory, perhaps. She’d already been assessed by Atos, and seemed to be in considerable pain, but the jaunty music and camera angles told me putting her through a series of humiliating tests was the right thing to do.  

Mervyn, meanwhile, was struggling to get by on a 1949 pension. In one inspiring scene, he was forced to pawn his grandfather’s watch and then move into a nursing home. He then started talking about his dead wife and we watched as he ran into his bedroom and sobbed. “Pensioners barely had enough to live from week to week,” trilled Mrs Townsend, the work officer stalking him. “The stigma was so great for the elderly receiving help in 1949 that many didn’t apply,” added the narrator. I wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be a good thing but I was distracted thinking about how much I hated Karen.

While Craig was happily sent off for work experience at a call centre, Karen was told to sew for her benefits. If you weren’t sure yet if you hated Karen, the producers helpfully orchestrated a scene in which she was put to work next to a seamstress with one arm. The camera paused subtly on the woman’s stump as Karen sat motionless next to her, and at least one Channel 4 producer looked at themselves in the mirror and cried.

Ah well, all’s well that ends well. Good Claimant got a job. Harmless Claimant was given his grandfather’s watch back. Bad Claimant, although annoying legalities meant she had to have her benefits reinstated after the show, had been humiliated.

In a nifty ending, all three were brought together and asked to decide which of them they thought was most worthy of benefits. I was hoping the fat woman would have to fight the crippled boy for a scrap of food, but sadly they all just left. Next week? We can only hope.

Karen, from Benefits Britain 1949. Photograph: Channel 4.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue