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Free school meals: this 2019 documentary predicted what is happening in the UK right now

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Hollie Richardson
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Dispatches: Growing Up Poor aired on Channel 4 this week.

The news that the government won’t be extending free school meal vouchers through the Christmas holidays has led to a viral clip of Channel 4’s Dispatches Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids documentary resurfacing on Twitter. Here, we revisit the documentary’s key messages about the state of the nation and examine why it is still so relevant a year after it first aired.

“That’s why we need to come off social services, and for you to have a boyfriend.”

“Hold on, why would you want me to have a boyfriend?”

“So we’d have a daddy… that would be better. Wouldn’t you think so?”

“Men are so much hassle.”

“No but if you’re ill, at least he could take us.”

This was the interaction between eight-year-old Courtney and her mum (whose name is not revealed) on Channel 4’s 2019 documentary, Dispatches Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids. 

They lived in a three-bedroom flat in Cambridge that they were housed in after fleeing domestic abuse seven months earlier. Because of delays in the universal credit process, the family had to wait over a month before getting its first payment. During that time, Courtney’s mum had to take out a £635 loan because she only had £5 child benefit a day to feed, clothe and take care of her two young children. And because of mental health problems, she also lived with the threat of social services taking her children away.

Perhaps the most poignant message from the above conversation between mother and daughter was how it highlighted the fact that poverty is very much still a woman’s burden to carry. 

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Because these are the cold hard facts that Courtney’s words so perfectly illustrated:

There are around 1.8 million single-parent families in the UK; around 90% of these are headed by single mothers. One in three of these families with a working lone parent live in poverty.

In fact, single-parent families are twice as likely to be in poverty than those with two parents.

10% of mothers have mental health problems at any given time, compared to 6% of fathers.

Overall, women are more likely to take on caring roles than men.

22% of people at food banks are single parents, the majority of which are women

And one in seven of all women in poverty have experienced domestic violence and abuse.

Don’t get me wrong, of course there are many, many men and boys seriously affected by poverty. But the fact that a little girl suggested to her mum that having a man in the house will solve their financial problems in 2019 is telling. It’s little wonder that she thinks this. The facts are there.

And now, a year after airing, Courtney’s words are an important part of a much wider conversation about the government just not understanding the reality of living either in poverty or on a low income – especially in a pandemic and the nation’s biggest recession since records started.

Dispatches: Growing Up Poor
Eight-year-old-Chloe was one of the children talking about the reality of living in poverty on the documentary.

The Trussell Trust predicts a 61% rise in families using food banks this winter because of the pandemic. And yet, a plea for the free school meal vouchers scheme to be extended over the half-term holidays has just been rejected by 322 MPs in the House of Commons. The news comes after footballer Marcus Rashford campaigned for the government to ensure no child in the UK ever goes hungry.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has argued that low-income families were supported by the benefits system, saying: “We will continue to use the benefits system and all the systems of income to support children throughout the holidays as well.” But it’s clear that Johnson has never been a single mum out of work in a pandemic and a recession trying to put food on the table for her family. 

Because here’s the thing: mothers don’t want to cry in front of their children about money; mothers don’t want to explain the threat of social services to their daughters; mothers don’t want their sons to worry about having a hot meal to come back to after school; mothers don’t want to go to a food bank asking for help.

Right now, however, an increasing number of mothers have to. 

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That’s why an old clip of the documentary has resurfaced on Twitter as a wake-up call for the government.

“I think parents do worry about money quite a bit because sometimes we do struggle to buy food a bit and it’s very hard when you don’t have very much money,” another young girl tells the camera in the clip. “I think I want people with more money to understand what it’s like with less money. I want them to understand it’s difficult. People with more money can help people with less money because we’re all equal and stuff.”

Young girls shouldn’t have to spell out the reality of living in poverty to their prime minister, but here we are.

Before the pandemic, independent thinktank Resolution Foundation predicted that child poverty will continue to grow for at least the next four years, hitting record levels by 2023. If that projection is correct one million more children will be growing up in poverty. With everything that’s happened this year, it’s likely to be more.

Yes, there are ways we can help alleviate poverty for families. Donating to food banks and reaching out to neighbours is a start. But the problem is much bigger than that. Considering that the use of food banks has been at a record high under this government, we must continue to pressure them to properly tackle to issue and provide full support. 

Young girls like Courtney shouldn’t have a single worry about money or having their next meal, so why the hell is our government allowing them to do exactly that?

You can find more information about supporting food banks and finding your local food bank on the Trussell Trust website

You can also watch Dispatches Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids on All 4. 

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Images: Channel 4

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…

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