BENEFITS STREET has been riveting viewing. The street -
James Turner Street, in Winson Green, Birmingham - is home to a
multi-racial community of whom the majority rely on state benefits.
Inevitably, the series has attracted comment from the political
Right and Left.
But what is most fascinating about the series is that the people
living in James Turner Street turn out to be no different from any
other particular group of people filmed by socially observant
documentary makers over a period of time. Hopes, dreams,
disappointments, and frustrations take place here just as they do
in tower blocks, suburbia, gated communities, and in the
countryside. There are annoyances (rubbish left on the streets),
suspicious newcomers (Romanians), family breakdowns (multiple), and
romances (most recently between a Muslim and a Mormon).
As with all such documentaries, you can feel a bit guilty
watching it. The camera is always more revealing than the
participants could have guessed it would be. Some of those involved
in the filming have complained at the way they have been portrayed,
or not portrayed. And beyond the detail it is inevitable that the
programme's makers will have a nose for the stories that we all
recognise: for pathos and triumph, for conflict and its resolution.
The archetypes stalk around the characters, the observer picks them
up, the camera paints them in, and we feel, alongside the guilt,
the satisfaction of recognition. These are people like us.
This subversive message undermines the rhetoric of both the
Right and the Left. Both tend to "collectivise" the poor. Both seem
to regard poverty as a sin. The Right attacks those on benefits by
distinguishing them from those who "get on, work hard, and do the
right thing". But the exploitation of the Left is just as sinister:
to the Left, the poor are helpless victims of injustice.
Neither side seems to regard them as having genuine agency, nor
as being interesting or important in themselves. Neither side takes
responsibility for the dependency in which some are, indeed,
trapped. What Benefits Street has shown is that the people
who live on James Turner Street are not at all like our image of
"those who live on benefits". They are themselves.
This reminds me that Jesus rarely spoke of "the poor" as a
collective. He did not diminish the poor, or patronise them, or use
them, because he did not regard poverty as a stigma. It is we whodo
that, and the politicians who represent us.