Eight-year-olds shouldn’t have worries. Little ones, maybe: whether they’ll remember all their lines for the school play, what will happen in the next chapter of Harry Potter. But Courtney, in Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids (Channel 4), had many things to worry about. Universal Credit payments. Empty cupboards. Shaking out the pennies in a piggy bank to see if it held enough for a night’s heating.
More than four million children in the UK are living in poverty, we were told. This heartbreaking edition of Dispatches from Bafta-winning director Jezza Neumann – returning to similar territory as his 2014 film of the same name – let them speak for themselves about what their lives are like.
Courtney’s mother fled abuse and was rehoused by the council. But delays in the system meant she had to wait a month for her first Universal Credit payment, and the family were living on £5 a day for rent, food and bills. There was nothing to eat. As temperatures dipped below freezing, Courtney asked if they could have the heating on. “We’ll just sleep with our coats on,” her mother said. All this was happening in Cambridge, one of the richest cities in the country but also one of the most unequal.
Through it all, Courtney maintained a cheery positivity that broke your heart. “I thought a food bank was where food comes out of a bank!” she laughed. As the programme wore on, it emerged that her mother suffered from a personality disorder and anxiety. She explained this to her daughter by drawing a graph of her mental state. It carried on along a straight line until the medication stopped. “Like a diving board,” said Courtney. In the manner of eight-year-olds, she made up a story about being a superhero. But in this case, her powers would kick in if social services came to split the family: “If they ever take me off you I would grab on to you and not let go.” And: “I want you to have a boyfriend. So we would have a daddy. If you’re ill at least he could take us.”
Courtney has become one of Britain’s 700,000 young carers, keeping a wary eye on her mother’s condition and taking responsibility for her five-year-old brother NJ. What a burden for a young child. By the end of the programme, her mother had moved the family to Hull, where they knew no one but accommodation was more affordable.
Was this a film about poverty, or about children coping with the mental health problems of their parents? There are links between the two, of course, but the documentary did not explore them. In Sudbury, poverty was making the lives of Danielle and Phoenix hard. Their parents had split after 11 years of marriage and Danielle lived with her mother in a cramped bedsit, which meant studying for her GCSEs was all but impossible. Younger brother Phoenix chose to live with his father, “otherwise he would be alone”. They shared a bedroom: “It’s not the best but as long as I’ve got a roof over my head,” Phoenix shrugged.
But the greater issue here was that both parents had mental health difficulties, which in the father’s case had seen him admitted to hospital and suicidal. He self-harmed, showing us pictures of his arms riddled with 30 cigarette burns. Danielle was struggling herself, and also self-harming. It was a complex picture that went beyond the “breadline kids” title. Was it ethically sound to show children in such a vulnerable state due, at least in part, to their parents’ mental health crises?
In some cases, one life event can tip a family over the edge. Nine-year-old Rose’s sister had died after a long battle with cancer. Her mother had left work to care for her terminally ill child, and fallen behind on bills.
The funeral costs were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rose’s mother works part-time but the failings of the Universal Credit system mean that the more overtime she does, the more steeply her benefits are cut until she ends up worse off. The family relied on a food club that distributes near-expiry date supermarket goods.
The programme left me hoping against hope that these young kids, not yet ground down by life, will somehow be OK. Rose’s cousin closed the programme by saying: “I want people with more money to understand what it’s like with less money.” The documentary achieved that. On the back of a trailer featuring Courtney’s story, a crowdfunder has already been set up for the family.
But other than a short-lived burst of sympathy, what do programmes like this really achieve? It is politicians who need to act on child poverty, not kind-hearted viewers.