Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Targeting of ‘Troubled Families’

One way of explaining the UK Government’s policy on ‘troubled families’ is to ask people to think about the trouble extremely wealthy families must have – how to keep up their stratospheric status, manage their tax returns, stop relatives fighting over their inheritance. Conveniently, the Sunday Times Rich List identifies the 1,000 families most troubled by these problems.

Next think about the troubles caused by families responsible for crime and anti-social behaviour such as fiddling taxes on a massive scale, speculating with other people’s savings, or running businesses that harm the economy and the environment. These families protect their own and persist in their wrongdoing regardless of the consequences for the rest of society. Most of these families are likely to be rich, and since we do not have any reliable data on who they are exactly, we could just use the top 1,000 families on the Sunday Times Rich List as a proxy and target ‘interventions’ at them. The Government would dismiss such an approach as wrong-headed, mixing up the use of the term ‘troubled’. Yet this is what the Government has done with poor families.

They have used data relating to 120,000 families which were troubled by five or more of these conditions:
a) no parent in work
b) poor quality housing,
c) no parent with qualifications,
d) mother with mental health problems
e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness
f) family has low income,
g) family cannot afford some food/clothing items

There is nothing here about criminality. We don’t know if 50%, 25%, or 5% of these families have been more or less involved in any form of undesirable activities compared with the average population (whereas we at least know, for example, that 25% of those on the Sunday Times Rich List donate to the Conservative Party).

Yet the Government insists that they are concerned with these 120,000 ‘troubled families’ because, in the absence of any evidence apart from interviews with 16 selected families, it claims that their “children are not at school and family members are involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.” And they will target them to make them more responsible.

Instead of targeting criminals, this approach fires blame indiscriminately at poor people. But should poor people complain if the Government is prepared to spend nearly £450 million to help those classified as ‘troubled families’? Apart from wondering what ‘help’ is forthcoming on the basis of being branded criminals, poor people’s abilities to hold their families together are severely undermined by the Government’s decision to place the greatest burden of public service cuts on the poorest in society. The tax credit changes alone would deprive working couples with children (earning less than £17,000 a year) £848 million a year: Overall, the poorest 10% in the UK will by 2012-1013 lose 30% of their household income as a result of the Government’s policies (that is 15 times more than the richest 10% who would lose just 2%: In that sense, they really are in trouble.