Tuesday, June 12, 2012


The big line being pushed by our beloved government this week is about "problem families" and the need to "crack down" on them. The right-wing press have seized on this, breaking out charming descriptors like "Britain's worst scumbags". There are apparently 120,000 of them, costing Our Brave Nation £9bn every year. Even the supposedly-neutral BBC agrees, although by now their oft-used phrase "according to ministers" basically translates as "you might want to take this with a pinch of salt."

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."


The Goldfish said...

There's a great episode of Radio 4's More or Less (link straight to MP3) about how this 120,000 number had been arrived at and how completely and utterly woolly the whole idea is.

This rhetoric makes me very cross as, had I had kids at various points in my adult life so far, I would automatically have headed a "troubled family", and while I'm glad I didn't bring children into my particular circumstances, I am pretty outraged that being disabled or poor and especially being a woman with a mental health problem (aaggh!!) automatically makes your offspring a bunch of lawless ASBO-boasting thugs. All these pointers are social disadvantages, not even indicators of competence, let alone criminality.

That quite apart from the fact that it's made-up numbers, at attempt to scapegoat people on the margins and pretend to be doing something about a problem, whilst all the time this government is creating more poverty, more social isolation, more strains on families, etc., etc.

Aerliss said...

Excellent post on this ridiculous idea. Whenever "problem families" are brought up by my more right wing friends I have to remind them that my family would be classed as such, a family that has produced a graduate, one person currently studying at uni and another who was on her way there when, in a long term relationship, she decided to keep her accident.

Problem my backside.

I would like to know why the mother having mental health problems is an issue but not the father.

Mary said...

Well, since I've recently been giving much consideration to the DLA specification of not including things "which a wife or daughter does as part of her domestic duties," the "mother" part, while annoying and wrong and discriminatory, is sadly not surprising.

For the sake of not wincing, though, let's call it "parent" for the rest of this comment.

My thought about the "parent has mental health problems" criterion was that if you take any parent, and bombard them and their kids with any four of the other six issues on the FMP list for, say, one year... frankly I'd expect that parent to be experiencing symptoms of stress, and quite probably depression and/or anxiety as well.

To clarify: I mean that the stress would begin as "reasonable response to stressful situation" but that over a period of time with no respite it would develop into the sort of chronic mental health issue considered illness.

Which would then tip them over into the magic 5 out of 7, FMP.

This opens up the other issue, which I've heard from both male and female single parents - the fear that if they seek structured help for the symptoms of mental health problems via their GP or an advice centre or even phoning the Samaritans, they might be considered unfit and in one way or another lose their kids.

So they struggle without help, and I am not convinced that's a better idea.

Kelly.Eats.Jelly said...
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