In the last few days, the BBC has broadcast a reality TV programme entitled “Famous, Rich and Jobless”, in which Larry Lamb (EastEnders actor), Diarmuid Gavin (TV gardener), Meg Matthews (interior designer), and Emma Parker Bowles (former model) swapped their everyday lives for 8 days coping with joblessness and its consequences. In the first programme, the four volunteers were provided with accommodation in four areas of high unemployment in the UK, asked to survive on benefits and to try to find work. In the second part of the week, they were sent to live in four households hit by the effects of long-term unemployment to try to help to ease their situation. What was striking about this social experiment is how quickly one can become engulfed by the despairing situation of trying to make a living when all doors seem closed. It also brought to the fore how prejudices of “benefit cheats” condition our understanding of the complexity of the lives of those caught on a spiral of unemployment and financial difficulty which jeopardises their everyday survival and physical and emotional wellbeing.
Yesterday, an opinion piece by Donald Hirsch in The Guardian also focused our attention on the social inequalities that still characterise the UK after more than a decade of Labour government. In response to this situation, a campaign for “a living wage” is advocating a level of pay which provides a sustainable standard of living for all workers, a level which should be considerably higher than the current £5.80 an hour minimum wage. Hirsh emphasises that the success of this campaign would mean the social recognition that all workers should be remunerated in a way which guarantees dignity and wellbeing.
All these issues also bring to the spotlight the current welfare system in the UK and its shortcomings. These include its inability to accommodate and work through the complex circumstances which keep people trapped in vulnerable situations of unemployment and often related poverty. In a recent article for Geography Compass, Paul Milbourne (2010) explores the contributions that, in the last few years, geography has made in researching and understanding poverty and welfare in western countries (mainly the UK and the US). He highlights the considerable achievements of the discipline and calls for “a ‘welfare turn’ within human geography, (…) [which] is required if geographers are to do justice to the cultural, political, economic and social dimensions of poverty and welfare” (2010: 168). This turn would allow a wider recognition of the contributions that geography can make in public debates on poverty and welfare and related policy agendas.