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Bonuses for bureaucrats who help Brits off welfare

In a major push to reduce welfare rolls, the UK is offering local authorities bonuses for meeting specific targets, from reducing truancy to helping individuals find jobs.

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Are the numbers wrong?

But while social workers and observers agree that the problem of troubled families needs a rethink, the new incentive-based plan has come in for some heavy criticism.

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In particular, academics find fault with the data the program is based on. The figure of 120,000 families is  extrapolated from a 2007 estimate that used a small sample survey made in 2004. Academics say that such extrapolation is unreliable and the figure could be anywhere up to 300,000.

“We have to be very cautious about the statistic of 120,000 families,” says Katherine Rake, head of the Family and Parenting Institute, a UK charity. “There may be many deeply troubled families who don’t show up using this data.” 

Use of language

Apart from the flawed data, many observers are concerned that the language used by government to speak about welfare-dependent families could make the job of turning their lives around even harder.

Even though the indicators used to count the number of troubled families focus on poverty and do not include behavior – such as criminality or truancy – the government conflates these families with what the UK press is fond of calling “neighbors from hell.”

Launching the incentive-based plan in June, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles told the BBC's Radio 4 Today program: "These families are ruining their lives, they are ruining their children's lives, and they are ruining their neighbors' lives." Such families, he added, needed to see that “[they] are not a victim.” 

“Eric Pickles may find the harsh language useful for obtaining the support of some audiences for the program and the money that he is spending,” says Rhian Benyon, head of policy and campaigns at Family Action, a national charity. “The difficulty is that [the language] is also stigmatizing and … [will make] families … feel distrustful.”

Gains offset

She adds that any gains made by the new plan are in danger of being offset by the effects of cuts elsewhere, from children’s centers to projects that help the unemployed find work.

Once the government’s cuts program is completed by 2015, the number of troubled families in Britain will rise to 150,000, according to research commissioned by three UK charities: Action for Children, the NSPCC, and the Children’s Society.

A young mother of two small children, who did not want to be named, said that since the closure of her local government-funded children’s center – which she used to visit several mornings a week so her children could play and she could talk to other parents – she tends to stay home all day in her apartment. “They just watch TV,” she said of her two small children.

Meanwhile, David, who has the qualifications if not the incentive to earn a much higher wage than most members of Britain’s “troubled families,” says he does not know anymore where to start looking for work. In old moments when he hoped he might be able to get back on his feet, he used to visit a government job center. Earlier this year it was closed.

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