Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Targeting of ‘Troubled Families’

One way of explaining the UK Government’s policy on ‘troubled families’ is to ask people to think about the trouble extremely wealthy families must have – how to keep up their stratospheric status, manage their tax returns, stop relatives fighting over their inheritance. Conveniently, the Sunday Times Rich List identifies the 1,000 families most troubled by these problems.

Next think about the troubles caused by families responsible for crime and anti-social behaviour such as fiddling taxes on a massive scale, speculating with other people’s savings, or running businesses that harm the economy and the environment. These families protect their own and persist in their wrongdoing regardless of the consequences for the rest of society. Most of these families are likely to be rich, and since we do not have any reliable data on who they are exactly, we could just use the top 1,000 families on the Sunday Times Rich List as a proxy and target ‘interventions’ at them. The Government would dismiss such an approach as wrong-headed, mixing up the use of the term ‘troubled’. Yet this is what the Government has done with poor families.

They have used data relating to 120,000 families which were troubled by five or more of these conditions:
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

There is nothing here about criminality. We don’t know if 50%, 25%, or 5% of these families have been more or less involved in any form of undesirable activities compared with the average population (whereas we at least know, for example, that 25% of those on the Sunday Times Rich List donate to the Conservative Party).

Yet the Government insists that they are concerned with these 120,000 ‘troubled families’ because, in the absence of any evidence apart from interviews with 16 selected families, it claims that their “children are not at school and family members are involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.” And they will target them to make them more responsible.

Instead of targeting criminals, this approach fires blame indiscriminately at poor people. But should poor people complain if the Government is prepared to spend nearly £450 million to help those classified as ‘troubled families’? Apart from wondering what ‘help’ is forthcoming on the basis of being branded criminals, poor people’s abilities to hold their families together are severely undermined by the Government’s decision to place the greatest burden of public service cuts on the poorest in society. The tax credit changes alone would deprive working couples with children (earning less than £17,000 a year) £848 million a year: Overall, the poorest 10% in the UK will by 2012-1013 lose 30% of their household income as a result of the Government’s policies (that is 15 times more than the richest 10% who would lose just 2%: In that sense, they really are in trouble.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Your Power, Your Government

Power is not evenly distributed in society. And history provides a constant reminder that those who manage to get away with amassing ever more power over others will have growing opportunities to take unfair advantage over the rest. Power struggles between individuals only perpetuate the structure of dominance.

The only way to break out of the cycle of arbitrary control by the powerful is where society invests its collective power into a government over which it exercises democratic control. Through their government, citizens can then ensure no individuals or groups can be so powerful as to harm others without being held to account by a public authority to which they must submit.

Unfortunately in practice, not all those who bid for political power will necessarily serve the common good. Some have an impressive command of rhetoric, matched only by their lack of competence in tackling real problems. Others are adept at deceiving the public when their goal is to exploit the reins of government to help themselves and their friends. But sweepingly curtailing the power of government would hamper those who have an effective plan to secure a just order for all, and unwittingly help private oppressors who can only be deterred by a robust state.

To live in freedom, we have to shoulder the responsibility for distinguishing between contenders for political office – between those who will maintain a balance of power that will enable all to interact without fear or inferiority; and those who will accentuate power differences by handing even more power and resources to the already strong to lord over their fellow citizens.

We need to expose self-defeating cynicism that dismisses all government activities, and increase public understanding of political words and deeds. If you would like to help ‘Question the Powerful’ by writing about political leaders and the impact of their actions, get in touch and we will send you a simple set of specifications for your contributions. Whatever country you live in, your government exists to exercise collective power on your behalf. The more is known if that power is actually used for the common good, the less likely would it be misused for private gains.

[If you want to get involved, email Henry Tam:]