David, a 48-year-old unemployed chartered surveyor from South London accepts, with a grim smile, that he is an archetypal member of what the government calls a “troubled family,” impoverished and dependent on the state.
Out of work for 18 years and addicted to heroin, he lives in a government-owned apartment and depends on unemployment benefits of $105 a week to survive, as does his wife. Two of the couple’s children are grown, but their nine-year-old daughter lives in a care home.
This summer, the government launched a new $700 million plan, whereby local authorities will be paid by results. If they meet specific targets, from reducing truancy and youth crime to getting parents into jobs, the government will pay the local authorities up to $6,000 per family. The system works like a bonus, but more like a necessary one since authorities are increasingly cash-strapped after wide-ranging cuts.
The government’s bold new push to cut state handouts – a key part of wider efforts to plug its budget deficit – has focused on an estimated 120,000 families that the government defines as “troubled,” based on indicators such as having no parent with a job to living in poor-quality housing. The government estimates that such families cost the state around $14 billion a year and perpetuate the problem of welfare dependency.
Generations of trouble
Few people would disagree that radical changes need to be made to Britain’s system of welfare. More than 60 years after Britain’s postwar government set up a cradle-to-grave welfare state, nearly 5 million people claim housing benefits and 1.6 million request unemployment benefits. Because children in troubled families are likely to play hooky from school and come nowhere near meeting their potential, they are themselves far more prone to be unemployed and hopeless in adulthood.
Louise Casey, director general of the government’s Troubled Families program, conducted in-depth interviews with more than a dozen families, some details of which were published this month. She says that abuse, teenage pregnancies, unemployment, truancy, and an over-familiarity with the police – “generation after generation” – can cost local authorities up to $313,000 per family every year.
Even David, who once knew a very different life, in which he ran his own business, owned his own house, and brought his elder two children up himself to be hard working and successful, cannot see a way out of his wretchedness.
Though he says he has breathing trouble, a doctor assessed him as fit to work. So his disability living allowance – an extra sum paid on top of other benefits – has been cancelled. To qualify for his other government payouts, he has regular meetings with government workers, including a probation officer he has seen weekly since he came out of prison a year ago after serving a sentence for fraud.
He would like to return to work, he says. “But once you’re working, there are so many costs and you have to pay for medical prescriptions and I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore, having a job.”
He would also dearly love to get his daughter home. “But to get her back we would have to prove that we were clean from drugs,” he says quietly, adding that he would not like her to grow up in the apartment complex in which he lives. “There are so many bad people around.”
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.
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.”
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.