So, what makes a "problem family"? How do we define the country's "worst scumbags"?
Well, that's where it all gets a bit runny. No one's quite sure where the figures of 120,000 and £9bn have come from - those ministers so keen to make these assertions aren't so keen to have their assertions examined and have not been forthcoming with their sources. Fullfact.org have given it their best shot and come up with the 117,000 families in England classed as "Families with Multiple Problems" as the nearest likely contender. The definition of that is clearly set out. An FMP is a family that matches at least five of the following seven criteria:
• No parent in the family is in work
• Family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing
• No parent has any qualifications
• Mother has mental health problems
• At least one parent has a longstanding limiting illness, disability or infirmity
• Family has low income (below 60% of the median)
• Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.
This quite surprised me because by that yardstick, I spent most of my teenage years in an FMP. My mother was not in work (1) due to her longstanding limiting illness, disability or infirmity (2) which meant that once my father was gone, we were a single-parent family reliant on state benefits which were a low income (3). We had difficulty affording proper food (a regular meal was "pasta and gravy", no meat or vegetables, which I didn't even realise was unusual until I was 19) and most of my clothes were second-hand (4). And our house was in a pretty awful state of repair, cracked windows and dangerous electrical wiring being two of the simpler issues (5). Ding, Family with Multiple Problems.
Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, has been ranting about these families not in terms of their circumstances, but in terms of their behaviour - crime and social disorder, truancy, alcohol abuse, and "ruining the lives of their neighbours".
Hmm. My sister and I were never in trouble with the police, we always had a parental note on the rare occasions when we missed school, the only alcohol in the house during our teenage years was the occasional bottle of wine given to our mother as a gift, and we got on well with the neighbours on both sides. We performed well in school, engaged in extra-curricular activities, got home by our curfew and were basically normal, boring, well-behaved kids.
Which on one level is admittedly irrelevant. My personal circumstances are anecdote, not data. To examine the data, go back to the Fullfact article, which is excellent in that regard and links back to all manner of primary data sources, and indicates that the number of FMPs which also have children exhibiting problem behaviour is closer to 46,000.
What I can say - anecdotally - is that while my teenage self would have accepted the descriptor "Family with Multiple Problems" as an unpalatable but undeniable truth, she'd be rather upset by the idea that to live with those problems was interchangeable with behaving in an antisocial or criminal manner. When getting home at 5pm after doing her homework on the school computers with a bunch of other kids in similar circumstances, she'd be quite put out by Mr Pickles' view that children like her needed to get their truancy under control. When babysitting, for free, the child of someone who volunteered one evening a week at a social group for people with learning difficulties, she'd be quite angry to hear Prime Minister David Cameron assert that people like her and the person she was babysitting for were creating "a huge amount of social problems, for themselves but also for the wider community".
Please, please, please, can we stop conflating "poverty" and "immorality", "lives with problems" and "is a problem", and "not in paid employment" and "does nothing of any use at all."