LONDON – It's reality TV for austerity times.
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.
The show has struck a strong chord in a nation fresh out of recession and still reeling from its most brutal austerity measures in a generation, with basic public services trimmed drastically. 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.
Critics say "Benefits Street" and its ilk are designed to fan hatred by showing people on the dole in the worst possible light, turning the poor – stereotyped as lazy and dishonest – into fodder for crass entertainment and easy targets for blame. Scores of viewers took to Twitter to vent abuse as soon as the first episode aired earlier this month, and some even made death threats. "Set fire to Benefits Street," read one tweet. "How can we eradicate this scum?" asked another.
"On television the lowest common denominator is to get viewers, so you get the extreme end of the spectrum," said Abigail Scott Paul of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a poverty research think-tank. "These shows present poor people as characters in a soap opera."
Broadcaster Channel 4 denies that the show is exploitative, insisting that the program reflected the reality in an area that has one of the country's highest unemployment rates.
"This series gives a voice to the disenfranchised and some of those who have been hit hardest by austerity," said Nick Mirsky, head of documentaries at Channel 4. "It was not undertaken lightly."
And supporters of the program praise it for presenting a neglected side of Britain and raising the stakes in a national debate about welfare cuts.
"Poverty is one of the least fashionable topics in Britain," said Fraser Nelson, editor of the right-leaning magazine Spectator. "People don't want to believe that the welfare state is now sponsoring the poverty it's designed to eradicate. People think it's a horrible caricature, but it's not."
The cast on "Benefits Street" – real name James Turner Street – includes "Fungi," an alcoholic and former drug addict who says he has never worked, and "Danny," a petty criminal who demonstrates his shoplifting prowess for the camera. There's a woman who faces eviction from her home, and a young family who said their welfare has been stopped because they fiddled the books.
Adding to the controversy, some residents have claimed that they were tricked into appearing on the show. And a working couple who said they were filmed complained they were edited out of the final cut because they don't fit the program's narrative of unemployed people milking the system.
Ofcom, the media watchdog, said the show attracted almost 1,000 complaints from viewers who thought it misrepresented people on benefits, and tens of thousands have signed a petition calling for the program to be axed.
The "poverty porn" trend comes as Prime Minister David Cameron's government tries to overhaul the benefits system as part of a drive to further slash public spending. This month officials announced plans to shave 12 billion pounds ($20 billion) off the welfare budget.
John Bird, who co-founded The Big Issue, a magazine that homeless people sell on the street, said that despite its flaws, "Benefits Street" underlines real problems with the security net.
"Documentaries are always slithers of reality and never give a full picture," he said. "But they do indicate at times something going wrong. At times they can tell us uncomfortable truths."