Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Poor Kids - shame on them? Shame on us!

I watched a programme tonight that made me stop literally. There I was, tweeting and thinking about writing a blog post, when a programme came on BBC1. I hadn't planned to watch it but I did. In fact, I couldn't stop. I'd go so far as to say it is the main cause of the blogger's block I've had ever since. Right now, this is all I can write coherently.

The programme was a documentary called Poor Kids, following the lives of children living in extreme poverty. Not in Africa, but in the UK.The conditions the children lived in were pretty shocking. Every time you saw the inside of a fridge, there was barely any food in it. The children understood how desperate things were but were, for the most part, incredibly matter-of-fact about the conditions they lived in, in a way that only children can be. Judging by the number of tweets about it on Twitter, the programme had an impact and reach greater than you might expect for a programme with that timeslot. Quite clearly, people were gripped, and horrified.

Of course, in some cases, it brought out the benefits bashers. Some people commented on Twitter that the fridges were probably empty but that they bet that the parents still drank and smoke. I'm not sure that those people were watching the same programme - I never saw one cigarette or alcoholic drink and the only cigarette stub I saw was when some of the children were playing in a playground.  I read the blog post written by Jezza Neumann who directed the programme. One of the interesting points he made was how he too sometimes questioned what he saw. You only had to ask the right questions and the answers became obvious. For example, he wondered why one of the single mums had a dog when she struggled to feed her kids. The answer was for security - people stole the children's bikes from the garden and with many addicts living on her estate, people had tried to break into her house. It was the only way to keep her and her family safe.

I guess you'd like to think that the children weren't necessarily aware of how bad their lives were but once they reach school age, they're going to meet children and not all of them are going to be as deprived as them. And you know, children aren't stupid. They often understand far more than you give them credit for.

What got to me the most was how articulate these children were. Heartbreakingly so. One teenager, Kayleigh, talked about how bullying at school destroyed her already poor self-esteem, and then how she had considered killing herself, considered not being there anymore. This girl, on the threshold of being an adult, sees no hope. No way out. And then, right at the end, one of the younger children said she didn't want to grow up. She knew she had no future and that her life was blighted before it had begun.

How could we let this happen? I can't believe watching the programme that these people actually want to live the way that they do. That they want to live with empty fridges, topping up their electricity keys, turning the heating off in winter and wearing coats inside. Having to walk to the shop because they cant afford taxis or public transport. Where their children have little chance of living a better life than the one they live at the moment because hardly anyone has a job and little prospect of finding one. Sure, there may be a few people who choose to live that way, but all of them? There's 3.8 million children living in poverty in the UK. I can't believe the parents of all 3.8 million children seriously want this for their families.

There is more we could be doing to help these children. UNICEF ranked the UK 18th out of 22 countries for child poverty levels. That means 17 other developed countries do it better than we do. That means it can be done. There's no point in throwing our hands up in the air and say we can't help them, because in other countries, they are doing a better job, and we can learn from them. Should learn from them in fact.

We need to do before it's too late and we lose another generation to a life of dependency on benefits. I was ashamed tonight. There are plans to cut benefits to save money, but UNICEF claim that investing in children through effective financial support, social protection and early years policies goes a long way in reducing child poverty. (See here) It's the old adage of speculate to accumulate - we invest in those children and they will pay us back.

They are not poor because they are stupid. They are not stupid because they are poor. The situation they find themselves in is not their fault. Society owes it to them to help them to look forward to growing up. And any money we spend to take them out of poverty will be worth every single penny.

PS If you want to see the programme and missed it last night, you can find it here)
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