Pickles and ‘Troubled Families’

An article that appeared in the Guardian on Monday has been playing on my mind for a couple of days. Eric Pickles the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (who incidentally seems dead set on destroying both) wants to tackle what he calls ‘troubled families’ or more importantly perhaps, he wants to streamline the amount they ‘cost’ the state.

Louise Casey has been appointed as a ‘Tsar’ to oversee a ‘troubled families’ unit which sounds like some kind of Stalinist initiative.

Not that I don’t want people who need help to get help in the most cost effective and streamlined way but there are a few issues on which I would challenge Pickles and the government. Firstly the direct correlation that they seem to draw between the riots in the summer and particular familial issues.

The government really need to make their mind up about what they perceive to be the reasons for the riots. Personally I think they are oversimplifying to the nth degree and trying to ostracise and target particular social groups. Yes, gangs may have been an element but the reasons the riots spread has to be taken much more broadly than that. The subsequent arrests show the age ranges were not necessarily concentrated around ‘youth’ and the class base of those pillaging the country is much broader than these ‘troubled’ families if you include the political classes who continue to twist rules (re: Liam Fox) and virtually ravage public services (NHS) just as those on the street looted the electronics stores.

There are broader issues which have created a ‘must have’ society and it is not only the so-called ‘troubled families’ and ‘gangs’ that need to be tackled but the corruptions at the heart of the political elite that create an ‘us versus them’ attitude to rule and one which is not helped by highlighting those who are ‘troubled’ and targetting them.

Back to Pickles though, the article quotes him as saying

“the common refrain was where are the parents? Why aren’t they keeping their kids indoors? Why weren’t they with them in court? The whole country got a sudden, unwelcome insight into our problem families. The ones that make misery in their communities and cause misery to themselves.”

What Pickles fails to appreciate is that ‘the country’ got in welcome insight in the summer to far more than these ‘problem families’. We got an insight into the way that our society has developed a materialistic and opportunist streak that is by no means confined to the ‘less than 1% of the population’.

Indeed, it was the willingness of those who are  not in this particular group of ‘troubled families’ to join the general lawlessness and looting that was the real social issue evidence in the aftermath of the rioting.

So what is a ‘troubled family’?

A family with multiple problems has been defined by the cabinet office as “no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items”.

Let’s see. Unemployment, poor housing, poor education.. oh look, mental health has been thrown in there too to add to the stigma as well as disability and low income. Hmm. That is a ‘problem’ family. Well, has it ever occured to the government that removing access to a comprehensive and supportive benefit system and social housing and decent education might actually cause some of these compounded ‘troubles’  rather than tackling the so-called ‘troubled’ families that arise from these social and financial circumstances.

Surely the proverbial ‘prevention is better than cure’ maxim applies? In which case, why doesn’t the government tackle the issues behind poverty rather than exacerbating them and marginalising and stigmatising poverty and the effects of poverty by dismissing families who grow up with these issues as ‘troubled’.

Labelling hurts. Labelling by a government is pure discrimination and playing politics with peoples’ lives is worse yet.

Troubled maybe, but troubled to whom?

I don’t say these families should not receive further help. Of course they should but they should on the basis of the poor housing, low incomes and ill-health rather than because they are ‘problems’.

Who created these problems and how can they be solved? That should be what the government is asking. How can we build a society with a sufficient and appropriate safety net than creates real community and doesn’t destroy localities and local services. The government cannot absolve itself from all social projects and social services by laying the blame on the ‘troubled families’ line without accepting responsibility.

Or maybe they can but we shouldn’t allow their narrative to become the predominant one.