What Can Children Tell Us About Growing Up Poor?

BY Kelly Chen  November 20, 2012 at 4:08 PM EST

Watch Poor Kids Preview on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

In Frontline’s latest documentary, Poor Kids, children are all too aware of their family’s financial situation. With one in five children living below the poverty line, Poor Kids explores daily life of living hand to mouth and not having enough, through the eyes of children. We spoke with the film’s writer, producer and director, Jezza Neumann.

Poor Kids airs Tuesday night on most PBS stations. Check your local listings.

Q: You decided to look at poverty through the eyes of children, why?

A: Through the course of the film, the kids are at times quite witty, which in some ways is also tragic. What you’ve got are kids who are clearly intelligent, who are being held back. And they’re being held back because they’re not getting the opportunities of other children. Even if they wanted to play football such as Johnny does in the film, his parents can’t afford it. This is restricting their opportunities.

Q: One thing that is very noticeable throughout the film is how hyper-aware these children are of their situation. Did that awareness change the way you approached the film?

A: The tragedy here is that they’re all too well aware that this isn’t good. So, what you see is children who know this isn’t the way it should be, but have no way of changing it for themselves.

To be honest, it’s like asking any parent, how much do you really know that your kid knows? Quite often parents think they are protecting their children from this. And part of the power of the film is the relationship that develops with the parents, which has allowed me to have space and time with these kids, whereby they’re given a platform where I’m an adult that won’t prejudge them.

I’ve thought about this a lot because I’m a parent myself. I’ve realized quite often as a parent you hear, but you don’t listen. And I find that with my own children. In fact, after one of the shoots, I went back and I actually shot an interview with my daughter. Quite often with interviews, you keep asking questions and you don’t sit back and just let the subject talk. Instead, I sat back and listened to these kids. And if you do that, eventually you will get these gold mines of nuggets from their understanding, which is what comes out of the film.

Preview: Nine-year-old Brittany knows that although fruits and vegetables are healthier, all they can afford is pizza and other junk foods.

Q: What do you ultimately gain from having children tell the story?

A: With a subject like poverty, it’s a really difficult subject to get people to listen to and to get people to care about. Also, people have a lot of stigmas attached to it and a lot of misconceptions. And in turn, people often feel stigmatized about being poor. They don’t want to talk about it. Because, then quite often people will want to judge.

The other thing about human nature is you want to blame people for everything except yourself. What happens with a subject like this, people do the same thing: they want to blame the parents. They want to blame the government. They want to blame everybody else except society that which incorporates them.

If it were the parents talking, and only the parents, people will say, ‘He’s poor because he didn’t bother to find a job, or she’s poor because I bet she didn’t finish school.’ But with the children, you can’t. You cannot blame those children for the circumstances they’re in. That is the one thing you cannot do. So, you’re forced to listen.

Hopefully, if I got the film right, your heart will engage with these children. There is an adage that one follows: if you capture the heart, the head will follow. So, if I can get you to connect with these children, to care about these children — and to remember the little girl on the railway track and the little girl collecting the nutrition packs from school, the little girl who had to move to the motel, and the boy who wants to play football.

If I can get you to do that, then you might actually start to think about poverty in a different way, and might actually see, as Brittany says, it could happen to you. It only takes one slip up, one thing to go wrong, and it could happen to you. And it might be nothing to do with you, nothing to do with the way you’re leading your life. But even a natural disaster can take you down to ground zero.

Q: When you talk about poverty, one thing that people want to know is how — how did they get into this situation?

A: Statistically, you can see there has been a “new poor.” You’re talking about manager levels and downwards, people who were earning a decent living but never quite had enough to build that nest egg. That didn’t have that good solid investment hidden away. The people who were doing well with themselves had a nice car, kids had nice clothes, who make up vast tracts of America — they have been hit hard by the recession. As companies downsize, suddenly, these managers find themselves unemployed and finding it very difficult to find another job.

We are seeing families who have a work ethic, who are now suddenly finding themselves without a job, or barely scraping minimum wage but with no reserves. They could also come from a family who were never “rich” so to speak, that there’s no support network. On our research trips, we heard people say, “I’m lucky,” because they have a sister with a five bedroom house they can stay at. But for families for who don’t have that support, you really are out there on your own.

Q: What is the future for these children?

A: The reality is, the future is bleak if things stay the way they are. Hopefully, with these kids they’ll find a way. There are programs out there, the question is — will they get the funding they need? Will people start to make real choices and decisions that affect the organizations that are out there already doing things? Education is obviously a key. And you can see that through Johnny, you know, he’s all too well-aware, at 14, how significant getting an education is.

Preview: For Johnny, an education will get him to where he wants to go. “Grades is my only way out of here. If my grades are not good, I know I cannot go to university like my dream.”

RELATED: How Homelessness Disrupts a Child’s Education

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.