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[Guest Post] Troubled Families: A Moral Maze, or The Seven Traits of Highly Unsuccessful People

2012 July 27

Today on the guest soapbox, it’s artist and comics creator Howard Hardiman. The eagle-eyed among you will remember us previously mentioning his comics The Lengths and (with Julia Scheele and Sarah Gordon) The Peckham Invalids in these pages.

If you’ve got a guest post brewing in your brain, pitch us at [email protected].

Concrete tunnel rings form a maze-like sculpture in a park. Free image from night, I was drawing away at my desk with Radio 4 on in the background and idly chatting to my boyfriend, who is in Poland at the moment.

A Moral Maze came on the radio, aiming to address the moral challenges around the government’s Troubled Families initiative, in the wake of the government’s ‘Broken Britain Tsar’, Louise Casey, suggesting that women in these families should be financially discouraged from having more children if they are struggling to cope at present. This comes off the back of Eric Pickles saying we’re too politically correct to lay blame where it belongs, which is with the troubled families where recidivistic criminality and truancy endures across several generations.

It is, they suggest, a moral failure of the families who languish on benefits that they do not lift themselves out of antisocial behaviour and state dependency.

In this Moral Maze, it was said more than once “we all know who these families are” when panel members asked for clarification on whether they were discussing troubled or troublesome families.

The criteria for being regarded as a Troubled Family are that a family has five or more of the following seven traits:

  • Having a low income
  • No one in the family who is working
  • Poor housing
  • Parents who have no qualifications
  • The mother has a mental health problem
  • One parent has a longstanding illness or disability
  • The family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes

Source: they’re outlined in this Independent piece.

However, the Moral Maze‘s panel also discussed some very loaded terms like “serial fatherlessness” which seemed to point quite firmly to where they apportion the blame for this supposed crisis.

Of course, like most government statistics, the figure of 120,000 families in the UK meeting this definition is disputed, with most attempts to replicate the research finding far, far fewer families than in the initial research.

red, white and black triangular 'children crossing' sign with silhouetted walking children. Free image from morguefile.comThe panel didn’t seem to pick up on what seems to be glaringly obvious to me as a major issue with the defining traits, focusing instead on whether poverty caused families to struggle to the point where adhering to social norms was difficult or whether the families themselves were essentially lazy or immoral enough to drive themselves into this situation. There are obvious echoes to the description of “feral youths” we had a year ago when the country was ablaze with rioting.

To me, the most pernicious aspect of the definition is the bias against disabled people, particularly against disabled women. Since it’s far harder for disabled people to find decent education or well-paid employment, and since depression and other mental health challenges are incredibly common among disabled people (perhaps because we’re being told that our problems are our own moral inadequacies?), it seems like a given that most families where one or both parents are disabled are automatically well on the way to being labelled as problematic.

In fact, if you examine a family where neither parent is ill, disabled or has mental health problems, they must meet all five of the remaining criteria, but a disabled family where the mother has mental health issues need only meet three of the five non-health-related factors to be labelled as problematic.

If you then add in the idea that the mothers in troubled families should be discouraged, perhaps financially, from having more children than they can afford or cope with, we’re worryingly close to a programme of eugenics that disproportionately targets disabled and mentally ill women.

The discussion on Moral Maze didn’t pick up on this point, seemingly assuming that it should be taken as read that ill-health and impairment, whether physical or mental, constitutes a problem for society.

It’s a disturbingly regressive idea that in order to end poverty, you end the poor, and one that should be challenged with passion at every turn.

Reading through earlier government documents relating to this, however, paints a different picture to the one now being presented by ministers. The definition there ran:

  • First, examine families where either there is proof of the child having committed a crime or where a member of the family has an ASBO or similar charge around social conduct.
  • Secondly, identify families where a child has been regularly excluded from school, has 15% or higher unauthorised absence or where the child is regularly truanting.
  • If families meet one of the two, then examine if no-one in the family works or is in post-compulsory education (one of those NEETs – Not in Employment, Education or Training).
  • After examining these identifying factors, local considerations may be applied where families meet two or three of the above factors exist and there is cause for concern.

These local considerations can include:

  • Where a family member has been in prison in the last year, where the police have been called out regularly, where the family is involved in a gang or where they are prolific offenders.
  • Where a child is on the child protection register or where the local authority is considering taking the child into care.
  • Where a family member has long-term health problems, particularly:

    Emotional and mental health problems
    Drug and alcohol misuse
    Long term health conditions
    Health problems caused by domestic abuse
    Under 18 conceptions

Now, this list of issues seems problematic, but less so when you take into account the idea that these should only be considered once it’s established that there are problems with criminality or where the child is not attending school often enough. Worklessness is given less priority than these and health problems such as alchoholism are even less relevant.

Source: this Troubled Families Programme PDF from March 2012.

I think that the shift from what this document describes to the seven traits of unsuccessful people defined above and communicated by ministers more recently is incredibly telling in determining the underlying ideology at play here. Rather than say that criminality and absence from school or the structure of employment, education or training are the main challenges facing families and requiring intervention, we’re left with the impression that there are wickedly immoral, lazy people, primarily the poor, disabled people and single mothers, who are tearing apart the fabric of the country.

The original notion – that families who are troubled and troubling through antisocial or criminal behaviour, where children are being denied the life chances that education provides, could do with additional support and intervention to assist them in re-introducing structure to what can often be a chaotic and fraught existence – seems sound. To turn this into yet another attack on poor people, disabled people and women just seems like a moral failure of government, and that, I think, is far more likely to tear the country apart.

  • Described as ‘suave’ by Simply Knitting Magazine, Howard Hardiman is a writer and artist who makes comic books about lonely badgers, dog-headed escorts and disabled superheroines. He lives on the Isle of Wight and collects jigsaw puzzle pieces he finds in the street.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Stephen B permalink
    July 27, 2012

    That first list of criteria (which Eric Pickles said the families should be ‘stigmatised more’ for, because it’s their fault) translates as:

    Being Poor, Being Unemployed, Bad Housing, Not educated, Suffering from mental illness, Having any long-term illness, and Being Poor.

    (If you ARE working but in bad housing, or you are long-term physically or mentally ill, you are described as ‘lazy’.)

    I didn’t know about the second more subtle considerations list, that’s really interesting, because it wasn’t the families who allow crime or truancy, or anti-social behaviour, that Pickles singled out for stigmatising. He *literally* defined problem families on public record as “The Poor” and “The Sick”. Unbelievable.

    Thank you so much for this post, it’s good to know that the initial intentions were at least more nuanced, and it’s people at Pickles’ level who turned it into such a disgusting mess!

  2. July 27, 2012

    Great post, informative and tackled the entire subject with an understanding of the nuances of this complex subject. It feels as though, more and more, current policy is moving towards a (heteronormative) view that ‘wife+husband+children+home = good’ and anything else is ultimately, a crime. Hopefully articles that tear this down (like this one) will help people fight against that view.

    E B Snare

  3. Cluisanna permalink
    July 30, 2012

    Wait, using contraception under 18 is a long-term health problem? Seriously??? This is from the UK, right? I don’t know about you, but in Germany most people have sex at around 15 or sixteen, and of course they are using contraception (it’s taught in schools). Isn’t it actually the other way around, that people who *don’t* use contraception so early tend to form “troubled” families? (And why the hell health problem?)

    • August 1, 2012

      Hi, Cluisanna,

      You’re right, it’s teenage conception (so being pregnant or having an abortion) that’s listed as being considered problematic. Luckily, the abstainence lobby hasn’t taken off in the UK.

      As I said in the article, teenagers being pregnant or ending a pregnancy shouldn’t be considered in itself an indicator of trouble, but if there are problems with criminality or missing school (presumably the teenage parents, too!) then it’s fair to say there’s a clearer need to engage with the family, even if it’s to have a serious talk about safer sex!


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