British TV Series Shows How Modern Welfare State Fails Beneficiaries

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the expense of the welfare state. There has not been much discussion about the effects of its expansiveness and generosity on those who qualify for its assistance, however. There also does not seem to be much of a realization of just how much more today’s beneficiaries receive.

Since the American establishment media are so utterly uninterested in asking questions that might undermine left-wing beliefs, we must turn instead to a new television series airing in the UK called “Benefits Britain 1949.”

The premise of the Channel 4 series is wholly original: Examine how the modern British welfare state operates by contrasting it to the original one that was created in 1949. What the show’s producers found is rather interesting: not only were beneficiaries expected to rely more upon their families and communities for support, they were also subjected to strenuous moral conduct standards to prevent laziness and perpetual indolence.

Unfortunately, the series is not yet available in the U.S., but the trailer for the show can be watched online. I’ve embedded it below. NB readers who are residents of the UK or who know how to use proxy software can watch it here.

For a summary of what happens in the first episode of the show, please refer to this Daily Telegraph summary of the program:

The voice of 1949 comes in the form of “Welfare Enforcement Officers” (an invented title which combines various roles). Colin Goldsack, nicknamed “Grumpy” by his grandchildren, started working for the National Assistance Board in 1963. At that time he’d have worked by “the A Code”, what a welfare historian describes as “a secret instruction manual” of 8,000 unofficial rules for NAB staff. His career began at a time when NAB officers still operated with staggering levels of “discretion”, almost on a par with today’s MI6 agents. He used to say he was “95 per cent civil servant, five per cent uncivil”.

Agent number two, Ann Townsend, started working in the now defunct Unemployment Benefit Office in 1980. Her mother worked at a home that took in single mothers and babies (the lucky ones, as this series shows). Of the duo, Goldsack represents the rationing-era mentality with curt, pithily old-school Englishness: “The cloth is no longer cut accordingly,” he says of welfare expectations today. Townsend heroically slips into 1949 battle-axe mode, fired up by the thought of all the social workers out there who are “not being allowed to use their experience and intuition because of political correctness”.

When officer Townsend meets {beneficiaries} Matt and Heidi she is free to ask what she likes, which means “not skirting around anything, or letting anybody off the hook”, in a way current laws do not allow.

“She was extremely blunt, almost rude,” sys Heidi. “I was going to give as good as I got. I did rip into her a couple of times.”

“They kept moaning at me [saying]… why are you not working?” says Matt. “Inside you’re going ‘shut up!’ If [the show] had been any longer than a week I would have started losing my rag, it would have been more like The Osbornes, lots of expletives.”

Matt and Heidi end up in 1949 “rehabilitation”, where they are taught basic cleaning skills. Heidi called it “an epiphany moment” and the story from there on is touching. They were grateful for the support offered by the 1949 system - until they heard the stories of the other claimants in the show. “I cried when I met a single mother who got thrown out of her house because she refused to give her children up into care - and a gentleman surviving on the street,” says Heidi. “Well, thanks ever so much for the help – but if it means that I got everything at the expense of people who needed help more than I did then it’s a little bit squiffy.”

In terms of attitudes towards the needy, everybody involved in the programme agrees 2013 is the better place. But, says producer Steff Wagstaffe, a single mother from Brighton: "the important lesson we learned is that the benefit trap is a very real thing - it really, really does exist."

What a pity it is that a series of this nature would never air on Channel 4’s American broadcast counterparts, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

The Daily Mail also has a summary of one of the other modern-day beneficiaries, a woman named Karen who claims a variety of ailments including diabetes, irregular heartbeat, arthritis, and backaches, in addition to being significantly overweight. In the show, she seems outraged at the idea that people in 1949 were actually required to do some sort of labor if they wished to receive benefits:

Despite Karen’s protests that she’s ‘in pain every single day 24/7’, she is forced to complete a 1940s-style medical assessment. It is toe-curlingly fascinating to watch.

‘Would you be able to climb ladders?’ asks the doctor.

‘Oh no,’ said Karen.


Karen laughs at the sheer idiocy of the idea.

‘Throw something?’


‘Pull an object?’



‘I would find that a struggle.’

The doctor puts a 12lb bag of potatoes at her feet and asks her to lift it.

‘No, struggling with that,’ she says, not even getting it off the floor.

The doctor then places one potato on the desk in front of her and asks her to pick it up. She pauses, unsure what to do.

Call me sceptical, but I could almost see the cogs turning in her brain, as if she was thinking: ‘If I pick up this potato, I might lose my benefit, but if I don’t pick up this potato, that will look ridiculous.’

Is this exploitative television? Perhaps, but then again, is it possible that Karen herself is exploiting the state? These are questions the American broadcast networks will never ask. How unfortunate.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013