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American Nightmare: Trump's Breadline Kids

Back to ‘Our Films’
47 minutes
Lauren Santucci
Jezza Neumann
Executive Producer:
Brian Woods & Frank Koughan

Early in 2020, it was estimated that 16 percent of children in America were living in poverty, and that more than one in six lived in food-insecure households — a burden disproportionately borne by Black and Hispanic kids.

Then came the Coronavirus...

As the pandemic continues and the presidential election approaches, FRONTLINE presents a documentary offering a powerful look at child poverty in America in the time of COVID-19 — told from the perspective of the children themselves.

From award-winning director Jezza Neumann, who also made 2012’s Poor Kids, and producer Lauren Santucci, American Nightmare: Trump’s Breadline Kids follows three children and their families (one Black, one mixed-race and one white) in the battleground state of Ohio across six months as the pandemic amplifies their struggle to stay afloat — with schools closing, jobs being lost and need rising.

Thirteen-year-old Shawn fears that his mom, Crystal, who works at the local Salvation Army food pantry, will catch the virus — but if she stops working, she’ll no longer receive government assistance. Including food stamps, Crystal takes home the equivalent of $885 each month. It’s an amount that must cover all of the family’s expenses. “My mom stretches the money that she gets to last out the whole month, so, like, usually we like have enough to hold us over for the whole month, but some things I can’t get that I want,” Shawn says.

At the trailer where they are living, Shawn helps to care for his toddler sister, striving to be a positive role model for her: “I mean, it’s a lot of pressure on me, but I try to do my best,” he says. He feels the need to protect his mother from his fears about the family’s struggle: “If I feel sad or something, and I expressed to my mom, that would make her feel sad, and so I just keep it to myself.”

It’s a dilemma that’s familiar to 14-year-old Kyah. She, her mother, Charlotte, and her older sister, Kelia, became homeless when Charlotte became unable to pay their rent. Charlotte was supposed to start a new job in March, but it fell through due to the pandemic. And the family lost many of their cherished possessions when they could no longer make payments to the storage company holding their belongings: “I lost important things like pictures that I can't get again,” Kyah says.

Now, all three of them are temporarily living in a single room at a relative’s house as Charlotte looks for work and a home they can afford within Kyah’s school district. As an escape, Kyah watches video tours of houses online, imagining that her family will one day have one of their own.

“What makes me the saddest about all this is seeing my mom like this,” Kyah says. “I try not to show my feelings because I know it will be overwhelming and it makes things worse.”

Twelve-year-old Laikyen, whose mother, Fantasy, works at a gas station to provide for Laikyen and her older sister, also feels her mom’s pain. “In my opinion my mom doesn't get paid as much as she should, because my mom works hard and she deserves a little bit more,” Laiken says.

Schoolwork has long been a struggle for Laikyen, who has ADHD. The documentary shows how that struggle is magnified when her school district goes remote. “We don’t have school because of the coronavirus. My grades — right now, my schoolwork is not very well,” Laikyen says. She is thankful for the food pantry down the street, where in addition to helping keep her family from going hungry, her beloved “Miss Candy” helps her with her homework. “She helps people that needs help,” Laikyen says.

As the pandemic continues and the country also reckons with issues of race and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the children share their worries and hopes about their futures. Some of them participate in protests calling for an end to racial injustice.

“I think it does make it harder to get out of poverty,” Kyah says of racism towards Black people. “I actually am worried about the future… I just want us to be all right.”

American Nightmare: Trump’s Breadline Kids is a window into the unique realities of child poverty in the U.S. in 2020.