Growing Up Poor: Britain's Breadline Kids review – the lives stolen by poverty

Lucy Mangan
Growing Up Poor: Britain's Breadline Kids review – the lives stolen by poverty. You could call these tragic stories Dickensian – if the word didn’t imply that things would come right in the end

Eight-year-old Courtney found her first visit to the food bank quite exciting over all, despite the disappointment of discovering that it didn’t dispense victuals in the same manner as a cashpoint does money. She, her mum and her brother walked the two and a half miles from the flat they have been living in since they fled domestic violence seven months ago, and two and a half miles back sharing the weight of the bags between them (“There is a bus, but if you had bus fare you wouldn’t be going to a food bank”). Her mother carried most of the load, but they all bore their share.

They live in Cambridge, the UK’s most unequal city, where a fifth of the population takes home just 2% of its total income. The family is trying to live on child benefit of £5 a day while they wait for their delayed first universal credit payment. They have maxed out their allowance of top-up fuel vouchers from the Trussell Trust, so as the temperature drops below freezing, Courtney empties 45p-worth of coppers out of the china swan on the window sill to see if it’s enough to put the heating on while they wait for Cash Converters to open the next day so a phone can be pawned. “Baby,” says her mother wearily. “There aren’t enough there.”

You would call Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids (Channel 4) Dickensian if the word didn’t carry connotations of picaresque charm and a notion that things would come right in the end.

In Sudbury, Suffolk, Danielle is trying to revise for her GCSEs in the temporary accommodation in which she, her sister and her mother, Jodi, have lived since the parents separated a year ago and neither could afford the family home alone. It is a bedsit – a single room (plus kitchen and bathroom) for the three of them, in which she works on her bed trying to concentrate in the oppressive surroundings. Her father (who has been hospitalised for suicidal depression – Jodi also has mental health problems and cannot work) and brother, Phoenix, live in a similar place nearby. Their savings are gone, so they rely on benefits, the local soup kitchen and the food bank. Danielle is perplexed as to why she finds herself crying all the time. “It just happens.” She starts self-harming and having suicidal thoughts and goes to a charity for help. Her GCSE results are poor, objectively speaking. In context, they are a triumph. She can see only the former.

In Morecambe, nine-year-old Rose’s family is struggling to cope with the emotional and financial aftermath of her older sister Sarah’s death from cancer. The funeral costs, despite fundraising, have crippled them and her mother, who stopped working when her daughter got her terminal diagnosis, is still clearly shellshocked and consumed by grief. “I’m not ready to accept it … I don’t know if I ever could, if I ever will be able to.”

The stories differ in detail, but the pattern is the same: it takes just one ordinary catastrophe – domestic violence, divorce, bereavement, a breakdown – to precipitate poverty. The poverty creates further tensions and problems as well as exacerbating any exisiting ones. (For example, Courtney’s family must uproot themselves from expensive Cambridge for cheaper Hull, disrupting the children’s lives and educations further.) And the state safety net that is supposed to catch them is a shamefully shabby thing, holed by delayed payments and petty, irrational rules and riddled with traps for the unwary. Charities dash madly from one ragged gap to another, desperately trying to patch with goodwill and individual initiatives (Rose looks forward to helping out on their visits to Thursday Food Club, where an entry fee allows you to choose items near expiry dates that would otherwise be thrown out by supermarkets) what should be firmly sutured and kept in good repair by government.

We do not need to rehearse the whys and wherefores of austerity again here. Dispatches provided some facts and figures amid the children’s stories: the 2,000 new food banks established in the UK over the past 10 years, the 27p left in every pound to people who work overtime while on universal credit, the one out of 10 bereaved families who have to borrow money to meet funeral costs, and so on. But this was a programme designed to give a voice to those suffering their real-life effects, and to bear unsentimentalised witness to them. You could wish that the people in charge were watching but – they know, don’t they? At some level, they must know. And still we have food banks opening in schools and communities clubbing together to make sure children don’t go hungry in the holidays. Because if you have no conscience, knowing makes no difference.