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Stories of people just like us

24 January 2014

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.

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