‘Some people bully you because your house is not all fancy’ Sam, 11, is living with relatives after his single parent dad had a heart attack. Paige, 10, recently moved off a condemned Gorbals estate. Courtney, eight, and friend Holly, nine, in Bradford: ‘I think my future is going to have loads of bad things in it’
In the UK, 3.8 million children live in poverty. True Vision filmed five of them.
Courtney lives in a bare-walled terrace house on the Canterbury estate in Bradford, West Yorkshire, one of the most deprived parts of Britain . She’s been hearing a lot about money, she says. It is the only thing on anyone’s mind as the summer holiday approaches, a time when having nothing makes the days drag by longer. The eight-year-old has a list of what they won’t be doing: swimming. Ice-cream. Seaside. “About this credit crunchy thing,” Courtney says. “It’s stopped all the money and we’ve got no food .” A quick check of the fridge reveals two small bottles of medicine and a two-litre jug of milk. “W e had to have tea at, like, almost 12 o’clock at night… and we’ve got no cereal, nowt, and I could go, like, another week with no food, but I’ll at least have to have a biscuit or something.” Payday is Friday in Courtney’s house, where her mother Fran, a single parent with three young daughters and a son, is struggling to juggle childcare, benefi ts and fi nding a job. “My mum says… she’s gonna try and fi ll the cupboard up as much as she can, and that she’s gonna put some money away,” Courtney says, but everything comes down to cash. “We even have this box , and we have to put a pound in it every time the TV runs out. I just think that’s crap.” She remembers the time last winter when Fran forgot to charge the other meters, and the gas and electricity ran out. They stayed huddled in bed as no one could bring themselves to go down the icy road to Fran’s mum. “I feel cross,” Courtney says, returning to their empty cupboard. “I feel like I could just stamp my feet and click my fi ngers and it’ll all be back to normal.”
Courtney is one of 1.6 million British children living in extreme poverty , defi ned as surviving on less than 50 % of the average UK household income. This means getting by on less than £134 a week for a single parent with a child, or less than £240 a week for a couple with two children. Then there’s straightforward poverty – a family surviving on less than 60 % of the average household income – which takes the number of children living hand-to-mouth to 3.8 million. That’s one in three under-16s in the UK. Four out of fi ve children on Courtney’s estate are from low-income families. A lone horse chews in the meadow, nosing between bags of trash. “We’re a poor family,” Courtney says . “We’re diff erent. People with money, they have more stuff to play with in the garden. They have things in the house.”
She trots off into the estate, one of her legs dragging. She was born prematurely and her leg got twisted . She hates it when the other children tease her. “And I’ve got eczema. I go upstairs and I’m scratching and scratching and scratching until it bleeds. It makes me feel calmer.” She has angry red scabs around her ankles. Her friend Holly comes round. She’s nine and they’ve known each other since nursery school. The only subject that matters is the summer holidays. “The holiday is part of your life that makes you feel sick,” Courtney says. “ How comes others get more adventures and get to learn more about this world and what happened in the past?” Holly asks her: “When did you last go on holiday?” Courtney flashes her a look: “I haven’t been.” They both lie down in the grass. Holly presses her: “Have you ever been?” Holly doesn’t wait for a reply: “I’ve been to Majorca, Crete and Greece.”
Courtney’s curious: “How did you get there?” Holly: “On a plane.” Courtney: “How long did it take?” Holly: “I think two hours.” Courtney stares into the sky: “I would be scared of heights.” Holly : “Is that why you don’t go on holiday?” Courtney nods. “Yeah. I don’t go on holiday cos I’m scared of heights, and my mum hasn’t got money. I think to get on holiday it’s about 50, 100 quid or something. How come your family are different and they can go on holiday and that, and our family can’t?” Holly : “It’s because my family aren’t scared of heights.” Courtney’s not sure. “Holly’s family are richer than mine.” Holly’s father works as a gardener and maintenance man , her mother is a carer. “If your family work, you get more money in the house. She can get nicer clothes than me and she’s gonna be richer when she grows up, and I’ll be poor.” Courtney adds: “Because her family work, she might be able to get a job. I won’t get a job because my family haven’t worked, so my mum can’t lend me the money when I become 21 and then I just won’t be able to do what I want to do.” That doesn’t make sense to Holly: “Yeah, but you never know, when you get older, you might be richer. Social workers might pay for you or summat.” Courtney shrugs: “They won’t . I think my future is gonna have loads of bad things in it. And then a few good things. I’m gonna get a dog and a snake, and then a pet mouse for it to eat and I’ll just get everything my mum got, except for bedrooms that have ripped wallpaper . I’ve just got to wait for me future to come.”
“My name is Sam. I’m 11. I live with my dad, my big sister and my little brother, and my main subjects, when I get home, are chilling, watching TV and skateboarding .” Sam lives in Leicester, although currently he’s staying with family in Wales after Steve, his dad, who is only in his late 30s, collapsed earlier this year with a heart attack. Doctors said it was brought on by stress. “My big sister is an annual pain co s she’s always going, ‘ Go away, go away.’ What kind of a sister is that? Annoying one.” He’s talking about Kayleigh. She’s a bookish 16-year-old, and an anchor. “And my dad just sits around playing and when I ask him a question he always answers, ‘Go away’, too.” That’s Steve, who’s struggling to raise three children and fi nd a job to boost the £420 a month they have to live on. Sam sketches his life so far : “Things got better and better.”
He’s being sarcastic. He wants to start at age seven. “I knew a friend, Jacob . He was my only friend. We were going to have loads of fun, until one summer… Jacob got run over by a bus that didn’t have any brakes. When I heard, I cried.” Sam moves on to money. “I wish I had a million quid to sort out everything we need. And I want to make an invention. It’s called the pound coin, but it ain’t any ordinary pound coin. It’s a TV pound coin. And it’s not any ordinary TV pound coin. It’s a limited pound coin and once you drop it in it’ll say zero, zero, zero, zero and it won’t turn off until you turn it off . It’s going to be amazing.”
He points at his television, which is powered by a coin meter. “We only get a small amount every month and that goes on what we need and not what we want. Well, I need a new pair of trousers. But Dad’s spent it on food, electricity, fags, lighters and gas, and then puts all the rest of the money in the TV. And so now I’m starting up a business. It’s called: ‘Touch the belly.’ I can tell you if you’re pregnant or not and what gender it is, and you have to pay me a fiver. The more money I get, the more chance I have of getting trousers.” Trousers loom large in Sam’s life since he’s usually wearing a pair of hand-me-downs, torn and far too short. He spends his school day dodging classmates who’ve dubbed him “ankle swinger”. Recently, they noticed he was wearing his sister’s shirt, too. “It’s a real pain in the arse being called a girl. It gets me psyched up and I just want to punch them. But then I’ll get detention or sent to isolation. I try to keep it in.” Sam is daydreaming now. “I wish I had power. Every time someone called me something, they would go with no clothes to school . Just see how they like it, being called ‘butt naked’. Anger is when you just can’t control yourself. The beast inside comes out. It takes over your body. ”
His home is the Braunstone estate in Leicester . “I don’t think it’s a good place to live,” Sam says, “because people make lots of noise and there is bad parenting.” For him, like Courtney, food is an obsession. “We have to use scraps of what we have left for our dinner. So one night we might have fish and chips or a sausage and then, the next, we might run out of money and have to use what we’ve saved. We’re like dustbins.” He mulls this over. “The rich people don’t like poor. It’s a known world tradition. Rich people hate poor people. Poor people hate rich people.” Sam exhales. “I’d like to change everything in my life. All the dead people I’ve seen, all the people who have bullied me. I’d just like to change everything.” He closes his eyes: “I would change my dad’s backbone. I would change it to straight, not broken, and his ankle, so he can go straight back into work because sometimes his ankle twists out of shape and then he starts limping, which slows him down, which means he can’t get to the jobcentre in time and then he gets marked as not being there. Then he has to go home just to sit down.
“I can’t wait until my birthday,” Sam says sarcastically. “There’ll be no party, so it’s a real worry. I have to make do with what I’ve got . It might not be a lot. It might be a few things like sweets and toys and clothes, but at really cheap prices, which is going to make me a bit annoyed co s I want good stuff . And then Dad tells me off for breaking my stuff and then I just go mental and start breaking even more . And then Dad sends me to my bed co s he can’t replace stuff that I break.” 4 December 2010. It’s Sam’s birthday tomorrow. Now, sitting on his bunk bed, there’s something he wants to say. “The ‘dark day’,” he mutters. “I call it that because my mum left me on my birthday. It was on a Saturday, in 2000, December 5.” Sam was two years old. “No present. No money. No card. No mum. Not even a goodbye. Just off she goes. I try not to remember it.” Sam’s already decided he won’t have children. “Because I don’t want to make the same mistake Dad did, like having a wife , then having two children, and then the wife’s going and you’ve got to get a new one.” The next morning: “Today’s my birthday and… I’m turning 12. And I’ve got loads of presents, so far.” He grimaces. “I got two.” He closes his eyes. “And one card.” His dad’s made a cake. Kayleigh’s laid out sandwiches in a foil basket. A friend helped score a Nintendo DS at a knockdown price that’ll still make Steve sweat over the repayments for the rest of the year. As Sam chats, the lights suddenly go out. No one has charged the meter key and now they’re sitting in the dark.
Ten-year-old Paige lives in a condemned tower block in a part of Glasgow where 82% of residents are impoverished. Everything in her room is peppered with black mould. The city has three of the poorest parliamentary constituencies in Britain, but she’s beaming, even when she’s ranting to her best friend and neighbour, Courtney , aged nine. They lean out of the window and sing out over the city: “Can we pretend that airplanes, In the night sky, Are like shooting stars, I could really use a wish right now.” They chant a chorus that’s whipped away by the wind: “Wish right now, Wish right now, Wish right now.” Airplanes by BoB is playing on the radio. Far below, there are homes and offi ces to one side, snow-scuff ed hills to the other. “You can see people in their cosy houses ,” Courtney says, pointing to tiny figures . “ They’re lucky co s they got a house and they all have a car, so
they can escape. Nearly every day there’s police down everywhere. People oughtn’t to be violent. It’s really at night-time, when you see people having alcohol, taking their clothes off and everything. “What I hate about our area,” she continues, “is there’s people outside shouting and swearing. Down there, nobody’s smashing anything. Look, she’s in a house with a garden and all that.” She’s spied a family playing. “You feel like you want to
break your heart.” Courtney is mesmerised by these ordinary houses with their neatly kept gardens. “What I want to do when I’m older is get a job… a lot of money… a house that doesn’t have mould and all. It doesn’t really matter about which one as long as you get one. ” She goes silent.
“What I hate about the flats is you feel that you want to be sick when you have visitors. I don’t like having pals in my house, in case they bully me. ” Paige, immaculate in leggings and striped cardigan, her hair neatly plaited , chips in: “Sometimes it’s hard to survive with what we’ve got because sometimes you got no money and you can’t get what you want. And I don’t know how my mum and dad do it, but they do. That’s the point.” They take the lift down to a playground, where the all-weather pitch is torn up . “The people that put us here, well, you must be kind of bad to be put here.” Damp is making them sick. “My house is damper than yours,” Paige says to Courtney, who recalls how on Christmas Day the ceiling fell down in her kitchen, forcing the family to go to a cafe.
“Can you believe they made outside of the blocks look nice while the inside is so terrible? Some people bully you because your house is not all fancy,” Paige says, riding the lift back upstairs. Her mother has been suffering from chronic asthma and her father, a furniture restorer, is caring for her. Courtney nods. “When I pick up my baby sister, she smells of mould.” In her bathroom, the white ceiling is obscured by black fungus. Then there’s the neighbours. Paige recalls the lift breaking and how once they decided to take the darkened staircase. “All these people were sitting taking drugs and stuff . And there was fighting, with blood all over their faces. A big riot van came wi’ shields. And I ran back inside.” Paige wants a different life. “I want to be a hairdresser and give spray tans, and on the weekends I’d like to teach dancing.” She wants to be like her Auntie Linda. “Her and my big cousin Lauren, they’ve got quite a lot of money. An’ they’re dead posh and all that. And I really love them. I don’t think my family, like me, my mum and my dad, are posh because of where we’re living right now.”
Their name is on a list to move into a house a 30-minute drive away in Drumchapel. One of the largest estates in the region, there has been some redevelopment there . “We’ll be a quieter and nicer family if we move there,” Paige says. Later in the year, the news arrives. Paige’s family will be rehoused. She is jumping. “Bye-bye Gorbals,” she screams out of the window. Soon after, they arrive in Drumchapel. “Oh, it feels strange,” Paige says, staring at a front garden bound by a wooden fence. “Oh, it’s beautiful.” She runs out of the car, laughing. She rings her own doorbell, rehearsing her new life: “We’re home. I’m home, Dad.” The next time she returns to see Courtney in the Gorbals, the council is blowing up the block next door. As she watches the flats come crashing down, she becomes teary. “It makes me feel rotten,” she says. “It makes me feel so poor. Like I had nothing.”
Michael, 12, and Craig, 10, both live on the Ely estate in Cardiff , a windswept, rubbish-strewn gaggle of homes that everyone tells you has cheered up since the 1991 riots. Michael : “We don’t get up to much, just free-running around the street.” They’ve invented their own kind of parkour , free-running off fences and walls. “See, there’s nothing else to do. ” Michael lives with his mother and seven-year-old sister, Carol Ann.
His 14-year-old brother Josh stays with his father, after violent clashes between the two boys. Michael’s home is a revolving door of relatives, friends and friends who are called relatives, everyone smoking cigarettes in the kitchen. There is a green space out front. No one’s playing on it. “Trouble is,” Michael says, “my little cousin ran through the grass and fell and cut his hand . He had seven stitches. People get drunk and chuck needles, drugs, everything over there.” Craig says they avoid other people on the estate. “We go down the woods, but it’s dangerous there, too.” Michael nods: “I know cos there’s gangs and all that. ” Craig butts in: “They set fire to everything.” Craig asks Michael: “Is this a good place? Ely.” Michael shrugs: “There’s only one place that’s good for kids: jungles.” Craig : “Why?” Michael: “Cos you grow up in the jungle, there’s no fags or nothing. There’s always a river close by, if there’s a fire. Like, there’s clean water. There’s always stuff to do: climb trees, make swings. There are plenty of animals to see.”
For now, Michael and Craig make do with the streets, playing games such as “batter you like hell”. “You’re not even allowed to fight back,” Michael explains. “Yeah, like we pretend that they’ve got drugs on them. We find like an empty 10-bag and pretend it’s drugs.” Stash bags lie everywhere. And the fighting? “It feels good inside,” Michael says, “but on the outside it feels, ‘ Ah, I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ ” He’s been on the receiving end, too, such as the time he picked up his mother’s weekly cash at the post office. “Seven or eight kids ran up to me. Floored me.” Others came, too. Perhaps 15 in the end. “Gripped my mum’s 160 quid. Punched me in my jaw, broke my arm.” Kicking and punching, they laid into him . “I was found by the police at 3am. After that, I always get picked on cos I was beaten. ” Michael doesn’t feel sorry for himself. “Everyone’s poor in some sort of way. My mum gets £108 and that’s got to last her the week. She’s got me and sis Carol Ann, plus she’s got to get food, co s my cousin comes in. And my next-door neighbour that I calls my sis, and she’s got a daughter, who I call my niece. Nowadays we’re gone without food. I stay out all day and come back at night. Then I just have my cereal and goes to sleep. And then wakes up the next day and does the same. I’ve done that for a week before.”
Most of the time, they get by on tins. “She has to put £35 on gas and £35 on electric. That lasts one week. I know what’s gonna happen in my future. Cos I always get a feeling that something good is gonna happen. I’m gonna turn out famous. And then I’m gonna get plenty money. I was thinking about being a vet or something. Or just carry on breeding my gerbils.” Craig’s not going to settle for the life he sees around him: “I’m not going to end up bad, I know for a fact.” Michael agrees: “My worst future would be…” Craig butts in: “…to turn out like the people living here.” Michael nods. “I don’t want to be like that.” Craig: “Look, our chances are good and bad. Both. We decide.”
Poor Kids is on BBC1 on 7 June at 10.35pm. See a video of True Vision’s interviews, at guardian.co.uk/video.