Transvestite Tramps

Poverty Porn seems to be very popular on TV at the moment. No, I’m not talking about transvestite tramps cavorting under the railway arches  (now there’s a mental image you’ll struggle to shake off) but rather the  proliferation of programmes featuring benefit claimants and the so-called poor. The latest  one is called  The Big Benefits Handout, and started on Channel 5 this week.

The idea is an interesting one, if  somewhat exploitative.  But aren’t they all? A family who have been relying on benefits for a number of years are given £26,000 in a lump sum – the maximum annual  allowance in 2016 –  provided they sign off regular weekly benefits.  We then sit back and watch. Will they use the money as seed capital to turn their life around, or will they blow it in weeks on Playstation’s, partying and Players No.6?

The programme began with an economist explaining how the concept has worked very well when employed in Africa, and his optimism about achieving similar result here in the UK.  I won’t go through all the reasons why  any comparison with  what happened in Africa is useless – but suffice to say that the backgrounds, circumstances and  attitudes of people are completely different. People in Africa are poor because…well just about everyone is poor and opportunities to progress are severely limited. People in the UK are poor because – for whatever reason – they have been unsuccessful in a country where opportunities to progress are plentiful. A generalisation in both cases, but one I’d maintain is broadly true.

Anyway, three families were selected to participate, because according to the economist, psychologist and ‘welfare expert’ overseeing proceedings, they offered the greatest chance of success from all the applicants. I defy anyone watching the show to look at who they picked, and wonder what the hell the rest of them must have been like.

First up was Tony, a 50 year old bloke from Hull with no teeth and hair that looked as though it had been washed in chip fat. He lived with his wife – who had a more impressive tash than him – and their 21 year old son. Tony wanted to go into the second hand goods business, although I’d suggest selling shampoo and depilatory cream would be a safer bet as neither appears to be available in his home city.

Second was a hatchet-faced 33 year old single mother from Liverpool with 15 year old twins and an 8 year old daughter. She hadn’t  worked for 18 years, which if you do the maths means she hadn’t worked at all. Her goal was to get a job. Why she couldn’t do that without being handed £26,000  first, wasn’t really explained. Maybe it will become clear later.

And then there was Scott, a father of four – also from Liverpool who hadn’t worked for 8 years since he gave up his job to help look after his son who has learning difficulties. At first I had quite a bit of sympathy for him until my daughter (who is beginning to make me look like a woolly liberal) pointed out that he had two much younger children, and he must have realised he wasn’t in a position to support the family he already had,  when he decided to add to it anyway. Scott had a house full of snakes and reptiles and wanted to start a business offering  exotic animal themed children’s parties.

I’m particularly interested to see how Tony and Scott progress in the remaining episodes. I once saw a Barclays Bank manager being interviewed about his job advising lottery and football pools winners. He said that many of them wanted to start a business, but he usually advised against it. His reasoning was that true entrepreneurs don’t wait for money to land in their lap before putting plans and ideas into action. They get the money somehow, or find a way to do it without money. The absence of money is rarely an obstacle for those who are likely to succeed. This TV experiment is on a smaller scale but I think the same may apply – money is unlikely to be a deciding or enabling factor. We’ll see,

In the first show last night, neither Tony nor Scott got off to the best of starts. Tony’s first move (after blowing £400 on the obligatory Playstation for his son) was to go looking for a shop to house his second-hand  goods business, complete with rent, rates and utility bills. Scott’s first move (after also investing in a games console) was to spend £450 on a Racoon. I’m no expert, but that doesn’t sound like the biggest draw to a children’s party.

The details are always different, but here at Streetwise  we see people making this kind of mistake all the time. They encumber themselves with overhead, stock and equipment they don’t need before they’ve even established whether there’s a business to be had, let alone before they’ve approached any potential customers. They invest and commit heavily in something that might not work, and it’s rarely necessary.

Tony could have started his second-hand goods business online, trading via eBay, Gumtree and Amazon. No need  for premises or overhead. This would enable him to dip his toe in the water and to experiment with what sells and what doesn’t without undue commitment. Scott could have started his party business with the animals he already had. His first move  should have been to structure and package  what he had to offer and then approach potential customers to see whether there was a market.

In truth, neither of them needed £26,000 to kickstart their business ideas, but the fact that it was there, caused them to make unwise decisions. The reality is that £1,000 would have been enough to give both of them a platform on which to build. If they do succeed, it won’t be the money that facilitated it, although it may have given them some kind of psychological permission to try.

So how do I think they’ll do? Well I like Scott’s idea. Children’s parties are big business now and  the exotic animals offer a  unique twist. I think he will end up spending far more than is sensible or necessary to get the business off the ground, but there is the potential to do well. Ultimately it will depend on how well he’s able to implement the plan, and how disciplined he can be with his spending.

I fear Tony will not do so well unless he has a re-think. If he takes on the shop it will create a profit sapping overhead from day one. It will also limit his flexibility and his potential customer base to those in the immediate vicinity. Sometimes a shop is necessary. A used goods dealer doesn’t need one in 2016, and certainly not from day one.

Whatever the outcome for the three families, I don’t think we can read too much in it for the wider population on benefits though. These people have already  been identified as having a better chance than average of succeeding, and the very fact that so much attention is being paid to them will make success all the more likely. Look up The Hawthorne Effect if you’re unsure how this might work. But it will be interesting to see what happens as they come to terms with both running businesses for the first time, and managing their own finances.

Perhaps not as interesting as Transvestite Tramps might be, but surely that’s only a matter of time.

15 thoughts on “Transvestite Tramps

  1. Neil Duncan

    As an accountant I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    Most people if they have a good idea that they are confident in will find the money from somewhere (credit cards, family, friends). Even if larger sums are needed and the bank will help they will have to at least put some of their own funds in.
    If they cannot motivate themselves to find some money then the either idea was not good enough or more likely they have not got what it takes to successfully run a business if they cannot get over the first hurdle of raising finance – they can’t expect a leg up or handout every time they encounter a problem.
    At the risk of generalising there is a reason why these people cannot get a job and therefore being self employed is definitely not a suitable alternative.
    It might make for good T.V. (not in my eyes as there are enough idiots and money wasters out there in the real world without coming home and wasting time watching on T.V.), but it won’t work.
    A very good article anyway.

    1. Stephen Parry

      I agree with Neil. He said this:

      “Most people if they have a good idea that they are confident in will find the money from somewhere (credit cards, family, friends).”


      Years ago, whilst unemployed, I wanted to do a course which would improve my prospects. The course cost around £160. I was getting about £140 a fortnight in social security payments. Hmmm…

      I sold some possessions i didn’t need; I asked a family member if they could help (only if they loaned the cash rather than gave it); and I did everything I could to make sure I could do this course. It was an investment in MYSELF.

      I’m nothing special, of course. However, how many might have said, “£150?! Can’t do it. Guess I won’t.” :/

      It’s about mindset, I guess.

  2. Kevin Sheeran

    Nice blog post John and relatively rant free for you – maybe you ought to get your daughter to write the next one!?

    Loved the mention of Player’s No 6 – my old mum’s fag of choice. Whereas my poverty-stricken mates could only afford No 10! That ages me, don’t it?



  3. Andy H

    There are a quarter of a million living in Hull, and John, I can assure you that some of us do wash our hair on a daily basis. Nice article, keep ’em coming.

    1. John Harrison

      Same number live in Rotherham, and a few have started buying shampoo here too. Not something that I have to worry about personally though!

  4. Jackie

    I would be interested to know if there is a rescue package, when one of them gets into financial trouble.
    Reference the second hand goods shop. I was amazed when discussing the rent for the shop, there was no mention of rates, electric etc. I would have thought that this was a crowded market, Ebay, Sunday open air markets and the charity shops are his competitors, not to mention Freecycle.
    I agree with a previous remark. This type of business could have been started on a shoe string.

    I will not be watching any more episodes, it is boring Television. Not least because they keep repeating parts. This seems to be a format for padding out programes. I have no doubt someone will tell me how it ends.

    1. John Harrison

      Very possibly. My search for alliteration took precedence over any attempt at accuracy. And having never bought ANY brand, I wouldn’t have a clue!

  5. frederick

    this scheme will probably be a complete waste of taxpayers money. All dreams of fortune start with a burning desire not a hand out.

  6. ian thomas

    Unfortunately, the ” contestants ” sound to be a a typical example of a large section of British society. Those who in reality have never had to fend for themselves ,think for themselves ,and have no inclination to hardship or sacrifice. Exactly the end product you would expect of a nanny state. I haven’t even seen the programme yet, but it already sounds very predictable if not depressing .

  7. Roy

    I guess you are either entrepreneurial of spirit, or you’re not.

    Reminds me of an article I wrote called:- “A Quick, Easy $2,000 in Your Pocket by the Weekend!”

    We’ve all known someone who needs to make some cash real fast. Or perhaps we’ve been in that position ourselves. A friend of mine recently needed to pay a rather large bill and didn’t have the cash to pay it. It made me recall a time when I needed the same. Sometimes all it needs is to think outside the box a little.

    I was 19 years old (long time ago now) and needed some cash to buy a second hand car I had my eye on. Here’s what I did…

    I went to the local car auction and having been there before, I saw that the auctioneer was standing up there on his dais while all these guys stood in front of him. I got to thinking that the wall behind this guy was just a blank wall with paint peeling off etc. real scruffy.

    I approached the owner of the car auction place and offered to put up an advertising board behind the dais. It would advertise local businesses and in the center of the board would be a shiny brass clock, with the name of the auction, phone number etc underneath as one of the ad spaces on the board.

    ‘OK, how much would this clock cost me?”, says the guy.

    I was a bit dumbstruck because I was prepared to cut him in on a percentage of the ads, but I just told him I would do it all for free for him and he’d have a much more professional and presentable backdrop for his wall. He agreed.

    Next step was that I went to the local tire shop and told the owner that an ad board was going up at the local car auction in a couple of weeks and only ONE local tire depot would be allowed to advertise on it. $25.00 a spot or $40 for a double spot.

    He snatched my hand off (most car auction cars need new tires right?).

    Next stop was a florist (it happened to be the next shop I came to in the block). “Why would I want to advertise on a board in a car auction?”, says the woman. “Well, the place is full to bursting with guys twice a week”, says I. “All these guys have wives or girlfriends, who have birthdays, or they get a bunch of flowers ‘cos the guy was late home etc”. She took an ad spot.

    By the time I covered two blocks I had the spots sold. I also had cash and checks in my hand… in advance!

    Then it was just a case of buying a couple of plywood sheets, painting them white, buying the stick on letters and dividing up the board into the separate ad blocks.

    I then just paid a friend, (who was a bit more nimble fingered than me) to put the lettering on the board. Bought the clock from a second hand store. Installed it at the auction a week later.

    The auction owner is happy with his freshened up backdrop, the local business owners are happy and feeling a bit smug that they are the only business of their type on the board. I’m happy because I’ve got my dosh! And quickly. And I was paid in advance. Bada Bing!

    I could have driven to the next town (in my ‘new’ second hand car) and done exactly the same again, but I kind of moved on to other things.

    A quick $2,000 bucks by the weekend. Easy if you just think outside the square a bit!

    And, of course you can go back a year later and see if the advertisers want to keep their spot on the board for the next 12 months or lose it to one of their competitors… So, another $2,000 in your sweaty little hands!

    These days though, it is far easier to earn money online! So that’s what I do!

    1. John Harrison

      I’d imagine that’s what would happen. The money is essentially a gift from the TV company, so they can do what they want with it without affecting their entitlement to benefits.

  8. Maria

    Totally agree with your article.
    You do not need £ 26,000 to get a job or start a business, let alone wash your hair.
    Will see but most probably they will go back onto weekly benefits.
    Let’s be positive and hope that at least one of them will manage to get by.

  9. Alan Crawley

    Yet more junk TV !!! How do these media executives get a fat salary for peddling this mindless drivel?
    If this is the best they can conjure up, maybe they should have a budget of £26,000 and no salary to produce a programme and only be able to air it if a panel of “intelligent” viewers vet it first to assess its
    marketability and public appeal.

    I’m with you and all the other commenters on this one John.
    Alan Crawley.


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