There never seems to be a programme about children in poverty, despair or crisis (if we distinguish between the three) the broadcast of which cannot be described as “timely”. That is bad enough, but American Nightmare: Trump’s Breadline Kids (Channel 4) could not be timelier. That is true on his side of the Atlantic and on ours, as the airwaves of this septic isle fill with the sound of elected officials asserting that, for good moral and economic reasons, hungry children should not be fed via the public purse.
This latest instalment of the ever-reliable Dispatches series was recorded in Ohio over four months that took in the arrival of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the US after the killing of George Floyd. It follows the stories of five young people, representing different facets of poverty. Kyah, 14, and her sister Kelia, 18, along with their mother, Becky, are part of the hidden homeless population. They have been sofa surfing with friends and relatives since Covid-19 hit the job Becky was about to start and left the family without an income. Unable to pay rent, they lost their home and then, as they waited for emergency benefits to come through, their possessions. The storage facility auctioned them off to cover the fees they could not pay on time. “Nobody chooses to be poor,” explains Kyah. “Sometimes it can look like that because they give up and accept it, but I don’t think nobody would choose to live this way.” The family are sharing one room at a friend’s house.
Illness pulled the rug from under the feet of 13-year-old Shawn’s family. He, his mother, Crystal, and his baby sister, Dior, have been living in a tiny trailer since his mother was diagnosed with a kidney disease and, for the first time in her life, had to stop working. The lack of space means his 15-year-old brother, Edward, lives with their grandmother. They live on $400 (£310) of food stamps and $485 in other benefits a month. Crystal works 80 hours a month at the local Salvation Army food bank to qualify for the latter (despite being too ill to work) and Covid-19 food shortages have halved the purchasing power of the former. Raised by a father who was a member of the KKK, she takes her mixed-race sons to BLM protests “so that they know what it feels like to come together”. She remembers the time their grandfather burned a cross on the front lawn as the worst moment of her life.
Working-family poverty is embodied by 12-year-old Laikyen. She and her sister are, of necessity, mostly left to fend for themselves during school-free lockdown, while their mother works all hours at the local petrol station. They survive thanks to the fact that they own their home (bought with a $10,000 loan taken out in better days) and receive parcels from the local food bank. There, Laikyen – who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was held back in kindergarten (“Because I was not smart”) – has her beloved “Miss Candy”, who sits with her and tries to create an oasis of calm in the child’s life to enable her to pay attention to schoolwork. “We’re going to get that ‘D’ up!” she assures the distressed Laikyen. “I don’t care!” she replies. “You do care,” says Miss Candy. “I care. It’s just a lot on you right now.”
On it goes, illustrating deftly in an hour the innumerable life chances already absent from these children’s lives before more were stolen by the pandemic, by the president, by the lack of a sufficient safety net for people who fall.
Worst of all, it is a bagatelle. These children are not the worst off. They are not long-term, “fully” homeless. They still have a cigarette paper or two separating them from the abyss. They have not been separated from their parents and caged. Within the ever-widening pool of people harmed by Trump, his enablers and his most venal supporters, they are among the luckier ones.
The documentary comes, of course, just before the US election. Let’s hope for a better tomorrow.