Life can be hard for families where one or both parents are disabled or without educational qualifications, amidst rising prices and an economic downturn.
However, despite substandard housing and difficulty in affording meals and clothing, adults often strive to give their children a good start in life. This is not helped when a government brands them as having “a corrosive effect” and “neighbours from hell” who must “change their lives” because they “cause others so much misery”.
But this is what UK prime minister David Cameron did in December 2011, in a speech about “troubled families”. He claimed that there were about 120,000 families who were the source of many of society’s problems – “Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.”
According to him, they have been undermined by “an excess of unthinking, impersonal welfare”. They need better-coordinated support as well as “a clear hard-headed recognition of how the family is going wrong – and what the family members themselves can do to take responsibility”. Local authorities would have a key role in identifying and helping these families, in order to “heal the scars of the broken society”.
Crime and anti-social behaviour are indeed problems. However, as Jonathan Portes revealed in the Independent in February 2012, how these “problem families” were defined had no direct link with either, or indeed, with substance misuse. The defintion would apply instead to “an unemployed single mother, with moderate depression, who can’t afford new shoes for her children, and whose roof is leaking”.
An explanatory note pointed out that those being targeted were families with dependent children which met at least five of the following seven criteria: “a) no parent in work, b) poor quality housing, c) no parent with qualifications, d) mother with mental health problems, e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness, f) family has low income, g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items”.
“I cannot believe the Prime Minister himself knew this when he made the speech,” wrote Portes. But, even unintentionally, “He has insulted… a large number of families who have more than enough problems of their own. He owes them an apology.”
I am not so sure the slur was unintended, and I will be pleasantly surprised if Cameron apologises. For his government’s policies are largely based on the view that wealth and virtue go hand in hand, and that disadvantage is the fault of those who suffer it (a notion which the opposition only half-heartedly challenges).
Imagine, for instance, a family which did reasonably well until the father had a serious accident, since when he has only been able to get low-paid part-time work, in part because of disability discrimination. This has got worse since the financial crisis. His wife, say, works full-time in a care home, for the minimum wage, as well as helping with his personal care, and they pay high rent but their landlord is reluctant to carry out repairs. Even if they claimed all the benefits due – which they do not – they would struggle financially.
If such families are not fully to blame for the hardships they face, it might mean asking tough questions about the ruling class and the system that has rewarded them so lavishly (despite, in some cases, mediocre performance or disastrous misjudgments). Government claims, policies and values deserve to be examined carefully, and vigorously challenged where they are unjust and inhumane.
(c) Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. An Ekklesia associate, she is a regular Christian commentator on politics, society and religion.