I wanna scream… I wanna explode.” These were the words of Kaylie, a 10-year old from Iowa who has had to leave her home, take her beloved “big dope” of a dog, Noah, to the local pound, and move into a motel room – one without any fridge or cooking facilities – with her mother and 12-year-old brother, Tyler.
As we learned in America’s Poor Kids (BBC Two), Kaylie is one of 14 million children to have been affected by the worst period of economic recession in the US since the Great Depression of the Thirties. The statistics are pretty startling. One in 12 Americans are jobless, and 49 million live below the poverty line. Thirty-seven million people, many from middle-income families, now depend on the country’s food banks. And across America, 1.5 million children are in families that have lost their homes.
This documentary looked at the lives of three of these youngsters, and it was their voices – the programme largely consisted of them talking directly to camera – that made it so compelling. Kaylie may live in Iowa, the heart of America’s corn belt, but she constantly feels hungry. “I don’t think of food, I’ll think of something else, and I’ll not be hungry anymore,” she said.
Then there was Sera, a sweet and sparky 11-year-old whose mum, like Kaylie’s, had lost her job, forcing the family into a single, rent-subsidised room in San Francisco’s gang-torn Tenderloin district. Piled high with clothes and toys, it looked like a very messy kid’s bedroom. “Look at how much stuff we have, and how much of a small room this is,” said Sera reprovingly to the camera, as if anticipating our shock at the chaos surrounding her. “You wouldn’t be able to keep it very tidy either.”
It was moving to be reminded of how resilient children are, such as when Sera described, with plenty of comic eye rolling, her constant battle with the room’s mildew. There was real sadness, too. Johnny, who lives in a shelter for homeless families in Davenport, Iowa, wants to become a professional footballer, but knows that “football is expensive. I’m 14. If I don’t have the opportunity to show someone I can play, my dream’s going to fade away”.
The awful truth is he’s right. Some dreams require funding and if there’s one thing this programme left me with it was a sense of being very lucky. I could have done without Sophie Okonedo’s rather leaden narration (“Kaylie is far from living in a land of plenty”), but this was engaging, thought-provoking television.