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Tory claims about ‘troubled families’ just don’t add up

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
The government claims there’s an underclass of people who abuse drugs while neglecting their children. Sadie Robinson looks at the facts
Issue 2313

Right wingers were drooling last week after the publication of a government report on “troubled families”. They jumped at the chance to characterise poor people as benefit-scrounging, drug-addled criminals who have loads of children just to abuse and neglect them.

The Daily Mail declared it a “report on 120,000 problem households”. In fact it was based on interviews with just 16 households. And all had been involved with local authority Family Intervention Projects—so had some of the most serious problems.

But the report shone a tiny spotlight on some of the ways the system fails vulnerable people. The interviewees describe horribly stressful lives often marked by physical and mental health problems, and violence.

Many had children when they were relatively young—although the report doesn’t give everyone’s ages—and found it hard to cope. But far from neglecting their children, many describe exhausting battles to protect them.

They see school as important and take great pride in their children’s achievements. Sarah describes how her son Dean “is at nursery and he knows his numbers 1-20, his ABCs and his colours—that is my little star”.

A major reason that children end up out of school is because schools exclude them. So Angela and Carl’s son Sam has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


Angela says she asked for help because she was concerned about Sam’s behaviour but “nobody was listening”. Sam was excluded from school.

Helen’s son Richard was also excluded from school. Again this isn’t a tale of parental neglect. Helen describes the lengths she went to to protect Richard, hiding his trainers to try and stop him going out and getting into trouble.

Wendy says of her son Ryan, “I knew there was something wrong with him going through infant school and I tried saying there was, except nobody picked up on it.”

She later found that Ryan was dyslexic and had learning difficulties. “I’ve even tried putting in for extra money for him,” she adds. “I don’t know if I’ll get it.”

Those interviewed seem to be desperately looking for happy relationships that can give their lives some meaning. And despite everything they still have some optimism.

As Kim puts it, “You’re not supposed to bring another life into the world when your world is falling down around you, but you think it’s going to be better each time.”

The report complains that many interviewees see themselves as victims. But it’s no wonder. As Angela says, “The system stinks”.

The criteria of family misery

The government defines a troubled family as one that meets five of the following six criteria:

  • having a low income

  • having no one in a family in work

  • poor housing

  • parents with no qualifications

  • mother with mental health problem

  • family unable to afford food and clothes

Problem is poverty, not individual parents

The government’s definition of a troubled family rests on meeting five of six criteria (see above). Poor people are more likely to experience every single one of them than the rich—and in some cases only poor people can experience them.

So some rich people take drugs, abuse people and carry out domestic violence. But the rich could not be defined as “troubled” using the Tories’ definition.

The Tories have effectively redefined poor as “troubled”. They have then commissioned a report focusing on a tiny number of examples of criminality, neglect, abuse and violence.

The report, by “troubled families tsar” Louise Casey, was set up following last summer’s riots. The Tories want to explain away the riots by criticising parents—and ignore the police killing of an unarmed black man that sparked them.

Their aim is to demonise poor people in general and to argue that problems come from irresponsible individuals, not society. If this is done successfully their assault on benefits and public services can be sold as more acceptable.

Alongside this goes the idea that an “underclass” causes all the problems in society. Yet even the handful of households in the report show that things are more complex.

Several of those interviewed describe how they have improved their lives for the better. They don’t repeat their parents’ behaviour.

This is not to say that a stressful or violent childhood has no impact. But this report doesn’t explain why that stress or violence existed in the first place.

And it hides the structural factors like poverty and unemployment that can cause violence, health problems and addiction.

Key facts from the Casey report

Five interviewees specifically said they had experienced abuse as children while others described unhappy childhoods.

Six described violence in adult relationships. Nine people from the sixteen households were described as suffering from depression. Seven referred to drink and drug abuse.

Seven children were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and seven children had been excluded from school.

A myriad of other mental and physical health problems crop up throughout the interviews. Despite the Daily Mail’s declaration of the report unearthing a “criminal culture” only one interviewee had spent time in prison.

Unemployment wrecks lives

The report does not talk about the impact of unemployment on mental health and relationships. It focuses on people’s experiences within families instead of within wider society.

Yet there is strong evidence that unemployment encourages problems such as depression and self harm. Cuts will only make things worse. The government has issued guidelines to job centre staff on how to deal with people who are suicidal.

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