The idea of ‘welfare ghettos’ full of streets where nobody works is a myth, according to research carried out in Middlesbrough by a Teesside University academic.
Professor Rob MacDonald says the concept of ‘benefits streets’ – brought to the public’s attention by the television programme currently filming its second series in Stockton – don’t exist.
Residents of Kingston Road on Stockton’s Tilery Estate will feature in the next run of the Channel 4 show, due to be broadcast early next year.
A popular misconception of such areas, Mr MacDonald says, is that they are dominated by families who haven’t worked over generations and that unemployment is the preferred way of life.
Instead, his research found, even in deprived areas most households contain people who work and younger people want to find jobs.
The first series of Benefits Street, filmed on James Turner Street in Birmingham, was met with tabloid headlines about “90% of residents on hands-out” and “the street where 9 out of 10 households are on welfare”.
But Mr MacDonald says those figures are misleading.
His research, conducted along with Professor Tracy Shildrick from Leeds University and Professor Andy Furlong from Glasgow University, was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Their studies in Middlesbrough and Glasgow focused on 20 families and aimed to find out whether some popular ideas about the unemployed were actually myths.
Mr 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 recent statistics have shown that between 62% and 65% of households have somebody in employment – meaning that 35% to 38% of households could be described as workless.
Mr MacDonald said: “In this sense, James Turner Street is very similar to the neighbourhoods we researched in Glasgow and Middlesbrough.”
Confirmation that Benefits Street was being filmed on Teesside caused widespread anger.
The Gazette’s photographer was egged while taking pictures of film crews on Kingston Road, Boro fans have displayed banners protesting against the series andfamilies have started petitions against the programme.
Love Productions, the company behind the series, insists its intention is to give the communities taking part “a voice”.
In the university research, of the younger people interviewed who did not have jobs, most had brothers and sisters who were working.
Mr MacDonald added: “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.”
In response to the research, the government insisted that “sadly, joblessness isn’t a myth”.
A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “In 2010, the number of families with no one working peaked at over 3.9 million.
“Latest figures show that this has fallen by 450,000 suggesting we were right to implement a radical overhaul of the welfare system.
“We are very careful about the language we use – making it clear that it is very often the system itself that has trapped people on benefits.”
The study that Mr MacDonald contributed to, ‘Benefits Street and the Myth of Workless Communities’, was published in the Sociological Research journal.