“Even though most of us are really hungry, we have to be careful with our food.”
Cameron is small and pale but matter-of-fact. His big, watchful eyes are underlined by dark circles, even though he can’t be more than about nine. He is explaining to an interviewer what happens when his family can’t afford to buy food. “We try not to eat a lot in one day,” he concludes. Along with his two sisters and his cousin Rose, he’s one of the children profiled by last night’s episode of Channel 4’s investigative documentary programme, Dispatches, subtitled Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids.
Over the course of an hour, Dispatches spotlights children from across England whose families have fallen on tough times. The children show us what their lives are like, filmed at home, out playing and at food banks. For lots of people watching last night, the families’ levels of deprivation would have been sobering; for far too many others, the documentary was simply a reflection of daily life. Whatever your response, there can only be one takeaway from an hour of television that so blatantly displays the need of a shamefully growing number of children in Britain: the poverty directly wrought by the Conservative government since 2010 simply cannot continue.
In its opening moments, Dispatches delivers a chilling figure. As of late 2018, one in three British children are now growing up in poverty. It goes on to show some of the ways in which families can find themselves in these circumstances.
Courtney, aged eight, and her brother MJ, five, live with their mum in Cambridge. The family had to flee abuse a year ago, and now their mum struggles to afford food, heating and electricity. In Morecambe Bay, nine-year-old Rose’s big sister Sarah recently died of cancer. Her mum stopped working when her sister’s illness became too bad, and the funeral and grave upkeep costs were so high that they, like many others in the UK, now rely on food banks (food bank charity the Trussell Trust distributed 823,145 parcels between April and September this year.) Finally, after her parents split, and both beginning to suffer from mental ill-health, 15-year-old Danielle and her family from Sudbury found themselves living in temporary housing, with nowhere stable to revise for her GCSE exams.
Though their situations are different, all of these children have something in common: when the lives of their families didn’t go as planned, the state was not there to help them as it should have been. “I don’t think it’s right for anyone to be struggling,” says Danielle at one point in the show. “I think everyone should get the support that they need.”
Danielle’s family, like all of the other families featured in Monday night’s Dispatches, receive a degree of that support from charity food banks and soup kitchens. Courtney’s mum, for example, has to go to the food bank because in Cambridge, the rollout of the government’s Universal Credit system means that the family’s benefits have been delayed, throwing them into debt. They can’t afford the bus, so every trip to the food bank means miles of walking for the family, often weighed down on the way back with heavy bags that even five-year-old MJ helps to carry. Their housing benefit has also been cut, due to government rules which say that the children must share a bedroom – rather than having their own spaces, as Courtney and MJ do – in order for them to be in receipt of the full benefit amount. On top of it all, a fuel voucher distributed by the Trussell Trust is rejected, because the family have already used up their yearly allocation of three. So, they do what they have to. They sleep huddled up together, in one bed, in their coats.
Then there is Rose, whose mum works 16 hours a week following the death of her elder daughter from lung cancer, and has her wage topped up by Universal Credit. But the more overtime she works, the less Universal Credit she receives, making her worse off. She too often visits her local food bank, admitting shyly to the Dispatches camera that, “I used to feel embarrassed going in there, but you get to know the people.”
Universal Credit – a combined benefit “designed to mean that no-one faces a situation where they would be better off claiming benefits than working,” as one BBC News article from earlier this year puts it – is causing significant stress and financial difficulty for many of those who claim it. A study published in April notes that of claimants surveyed between October 2016 and July 2017, “60 percent of those who said they struggled to pay bills said their difficulties began when they moved on to the new benefit.”
Universal Credit as a system is a result of austerity measures introduced by David Cameron’s government. In material terms, the austerity programme is proven to be responsible for rising food and financial insecurity. Research undertaken by the University of Sheffield, published in 2015, shows that “both in mean and absolute terms, provision of food parcels to children by charitable food banks has grown considerably since the impacts of austerity, welfare reform and rising costs of living kicked in.” These conditions are only worsening under the current government, with one million more children projected to slip into poverty over the next four years, according to figures cited by Dispatches in last night’s programme.
It feels like no mistake, then, that Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids aired during a general election campaign, when the choice between the offers of the two major parties is so stark. Indeed, following Channel 4’s empty chairing of Boris Johnson during its party leaders’ climate debate last week, it could be observed that the broadcaster is in some ways redressing the balance that many feel the BBC have been tipping in favour of the Conservative party.
Though there was no mention of the election in the programme, it was hard not to have the decision that soon faces the British public in mind while watching. A Conservative government will surely mean more of the same, while Labour have promised to scrap Universal Credit, and implement social policies designed help the most vulnerable in our society.
Indeed, the upcoming election ought to galvanise viewers of Dispatches. Instead of feeling helpless in the shadow of the Conservative juggernaut, we can actually do something: we can vote for the Labour party on the 12th of December, in order to enact systemic change on behalf of the children depicted, and the countless others like them.
Though it would have been more representative to see families from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (all the families featured were white), in order to reflect research that shows black and minority ethnic households to be some of the worst affected by Universal Credit, Dispatches’ willingness to lay bare the problem of child poverty in the UK is a crucial conversation starter. Because, put simply, it was impossible to watch these children – much more grown-up than they should ever have to be at their young ages – and not feel as though something needs to change.
“The fact that people still look down on people with less money is very sad,” says Cameron’s sister Casey at the end of the hour. “Because everyone’s equal.” She side-eyes for a second, before adding: “Apparently.” It’s a deeply sad moment, and one that should wake us all up. We cannot allow children like Casey, like her brother and sister, and like Courtney, Danielle, and Rose, to keep suffering. One way – indeed, the most urgent way – to tangibly help is to use your vote to bring about a Labour government next week.
Dispatches: Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids is now available to stream on All 4.