Between 13.4 and 16.5 million American children live in poverty. While the federal government has set the so-called ‘poverty line’ at $23,050 of income per year for a family of four, many of America’s poor kids live far below this line. Their daily struggle to survive and enjoy childhood is largely hidden from middle- and upper-class families, most of whom have only a vague idea of what growing up in poverty is really like. Director Jezza Neumann explores the problems of childhood poverty in Frontline’s Poor Kids, which originally aired in November 2012. Neumann has previously documented the struggles of poor children in his native Britain.
The documentary follows three families with children over the course of a year. Long interviews with the featured kids are punctuated by shorter interviews with their parents, most of whom are unable to find full-time work and struggle to meet even the most basic needs of their families. The children’s honest and sometimes heartbreaking worldviews highlight the growing problem of poverty in America and the fallout from the economic crisis. Neumann is sensitive in his portrayals of the children without sparing viewers the often-depressing details about the chances these children have to enjoy prosperous lives.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the documentary is the straightforward way that kids are able to explain their struggles. Middle School student Brittany Smith talks about trying to shower without hot water in a snowy winter. Her brother, Roger, talks about the misconceptions that others have about their family based on their possessions. He’s intent on explaining that his PlayStation and flat screen TV are artifacts from a better time in their lives. Although young, the brother and sister are able to vocalize that their problems are a direct result of their father losing his job. Their mother’s pregnancy puts additional stress on the family, with both kids expressing concerns about the quality of life the baby will have.
Cut to budding teenager Johnny, who dreams of becoming a football star but isn’t sure that his dreams can come true because his parents can’t afford to put him in a football program. While Johnny’s father is employed in a factory, viewers learn that they lost their home and live in a homeless shelter. By the end of the documentary, they’ve moved into transitional housing—a challenge that their mother has a hard time dealing with as she must make a small paycheck stretch to cover the needs of a large family. Bright and engaging, Johnny hints at the stigma of poverty in America by mentioning that he doesn’t want his classmates to know that he lives in a shelter. And he wants the best athletic shoes, which might be perceived as his attempt to grab at any status symbol he can in a desperate situation.
Viewers also meet a young girl who is full of energy and spunk despite the instability of her home situation. “You don’t get to make choices in how you live,” says ten-year-old Kaylie. She and her brother are trying to navigate life as poor kids moving around Ohio with their mother. Though their mom is in school to learn how to become a hairdresser, she isn’t able to find a steady job in a salon over the course of filming. She often talks about her bills, putting pressure on her pre-teen son to earn whatever money he can mowing lawns. The hopelessness of these two children is particularly striking because there doesn’t seem to be a way out for them.
At the end of the documentary, the family is moving from motel to motel and the children are unable to go to school. Kaylie herself wonders what kind of future she can possibly have if she has no chance to get an education.
At the very moment that the viewer becomes frustrated with the adults, Neumann shifts the focus and bring us back to the children. We are reminded that these kids have no control over their lives. This sad truth is sure to hit many viewers in the gut, especially those who have never experienced poverty firsthand. Ultimately, though, Neumann allows viewers to determine their own level of sympathy for the families featured in Poor Kids. His honest exploration of the choices made by the kids’ parents —good and bad—is presented without judgment.
The kids are, as they should be, the focus of the documentary. Without using a heavy hand, the filmmaker reminds us that these children are the future workers and leaders of the US. Their life experiences today may very well determine how well they function in adult society and what sort of future they craft for their own children. At the least, the documentary pulls the veil off of one of America’s most daunting crises.
Though the DVD release of Poor Kids does not offer any special features, interested viewers will find a wealth of information, including links to charitable groups that are battling child poverty, at Frontline online.