Poor Kids

Sam, 11, and Kayleigh, 16, struggling to get by in Leicester

BBC One, 7th June 2011

The number of UK children officially classed as living in poverty is 3.5 million, going by the government’s extremely low threshold. Because of current government policies, that number is set to increase by 11% over the next three years. This documentary is therefore very timely, as it sheds some light on the kind of circumstances that an extra 385,000 kids are being condemned to, at the behest of the banking elite.

Jezza Neumann specialises in making documentaries about young people, and he has shown audiences the plight of children in China and Gaza before now. But the experience of many living much closer to home is also disgusting, and stores up trouble for the years ahead, whilst causing incalculable pain right now. Their stories need to be told.

Courtney, 8, often goes without meals

Eight-year-old Courtney is from Bradford. She lives with her mum and three sisters. Her mum is unemployed, as she has to take care of three girls and could never afford childcare on her pittance benefits. As it is, she ensures the family survives by borrowing money from the children’s grandmother. As Courtney sits in her bedroom, we can see several layers of paper peeling off the walls. She often skips breakfast, and goes without lunch at the weekends, when there are no free school meals. She suffers from chronic eczema, and has dark red patches on the lower parts of her legs. She’s never been on holiday, unlike her best friend, who unsuccessfully tries to cheer her up. Courtney believes there will be “loads of bad things” in her life, and only “a few good things.”

Sam is eleven going on twelve, and lives in Leicester with his dad and sixteen year old sister Kayleigh. Sam’s mum abandoned the family on his second birthday, and the event still haunts him, even as blows out the candles on his cake. Since his dad lost his £400 a week job, they have had to manage on £400 a month, once housing costs have been taken into account. Of course, “That goes on what we need, not what we want”, in Sam’s words, and they are often without gas and electricity. When something breaks, Sam’s dad is forced to get a loan, but that means he’ll also eventually have to pay back huge rates of interest. Sam gets bullied at school, with kids mocking the fact that he wears a uniform handed down by Kayleigh, which has buttons on the ‘wrong’ side, etc. As the economic situation deteriorates for the overwhelming majority, Sam worries that “soon we’re going to starve to death”, because “They’re raising the prices of food and lowering the money.” Kayleigh has suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem, and traces this back to her family’s poverty: “It puts you in that mindset of ‘Oh, I’m lower than everybody else, I’m not worth as much as everybody else’…your self esteem gets so low that you end up hurting yourself.” A couple of years ago, she attempted suicide.

Paige is ten and is from a literally sickening tower block in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. Damp has pulled wallpaper and plaster off the walls, and layers of mould have got everywhere, including on the bedclothes. Paige has asthma, and this has been exacerbated by her appalling living conditions. Across the road there is a poor excuse for a playground, and she found a bag of needles in a bin around the corner. As she understatedly notes, “It’s not very nice to find stuff like that at our age.”

All these children have grown up very quickly, and display a better understanding of the way the world works than some adults. But by itself, this will not be enough to get them out of the poverty trap.

Jezza Neumann must get a lot of credit for his sensitive and respectful portrayal of life on the breadline. In his BBC blog entry, he describes how: “As a society, we have stigmatised poverty to a point where nobody likes to admit they’re poor. By making Poor Kids through the eyes of the children, we could uncover a tough subject through a section of society who rarely gets their say.” Furthermore, his documentary subverts the media talk of the so-called ‘un-deserving’ poor, by showing how their poverty itself creates huge barriers to self-improvement, especially in the current economic climate. But Neumann does not propose any solutions.

Ultimately, the living hell that is the lot of those 3.5 million children in one of the world’s richest countries, is the result of successive governments waging a counter-revolution against the limited working class gains of the post-war period. That counter-revolution is now reaching a crescendo, as the coalition government tries to drag us back to the 1930s, and further enrich the filthy financial aristocracy. This can’t go on for much longer. Their reaction must be met with our united action.

Some of the poverty facts shown on the programme:

  • The gap between rich and poor in the UK is now wider than at any time since the Second World War
  • Poor kids are five times less likely to have access to a safe outdoor play space than rich kids
  • Credit interest and higher fuel charges cost poor families an extra 1,280 a year
  • 1 in 5 poor families report skipping meals
  • poor children are two and a half more likely to suffer chronic illness
  • Low income families are twice as likely to split up
  • In November 2010 the UK came 18th out of 22 European countries ranked by UNICEF for child poverty. Only Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Italy were lower.
  • Child poverty under current policies is set to rise 11% in the next 3 years
  • One in six poor children has considered suicide
  • Over one million homes in the UK are classified as “unfit to live in”
  • Out of the 12 rich countries studied, kids in the UK have the lowest chance of escaping poverty

Poor Kids will be available to view on iPlayer until 14th June 2011.

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