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David Cameron has argued that the Government is determined to 'get to grips' with England's 'most troubled families', the relatively small number of families that he claims cause many of the problems in society. They are characterised by seven criteria - worklessness; poor housing; no qualifications; mental health problems; longstanding illness or disability; low income; and being unable to afford food or clothing items. There are 4,500 of these families in Birmingham, 2,500 in Manchester, 1,115 in Sandwell. Their problems are intergenerational, and they cost the state £9 billion, £75,000 per family - 'monumental bills'. One group in society is living apart from the rest. Cameron has promised more targeted support, and £448m of funding which will 'turn around' the lives of 120,000 families by 2015. Louise Casey is heading up the 'Troubled Families Unit'. Family workers will identify these families and make sure children get to school on time, and they are properly fed.

Sounds sensible? Except that it has all been said before. For it was during the Second World War that surveys of evacuees first claimed to have identified 'problem families'. They were said to be a menace to their neighbours and to society in general. Volunteers tried to work with these families, teaching them how to keep their homes clean, in an attempt to get them to change their ways. Public health doctors in local authorities reported on the poor state of their homes, on the fact that children played truant from school, and the mothers were poor homemakers. Many were supposedly 'mentally defective', and the father was always absent.

In the late 1940s, the Eugenics Society sponsored a Problem Families Survey, getting local authorities to identify problem families. Then, in the 1950s, many areas set out to tackle their problem families using home helps and health visitors. Some even tried to rehabilitate mothers and children in residential schemes. The concept died away for a time in the 1960s, as social workers came to argue that the main problems of these families were not their behaviour but their poverty. However the idea was re-invented by Sir Keith Joseph in his 'cycle of deprivation' speech of June 1972. It was Joseph who claimed that one Director of Social Services had told him that there were 800 problem families in their city, that most of the social problems were caused by them, and that these families had been known to social workers for four or five generations. Joseph's department, the DHSS, sponsored expensive research into what was then called 'transmitted deprivation'. The idea was carried forward through the underclass debates of the 1980s, and in New Labour's focus on social exclusion, especially anti-social behaviour and the Family Intervention Projects.

In fact, the focus has always been on trying to establish how many of these families there are; where they live; why they behave as they do; and how much they cost taxpayers and the state. But how these families are defined, and whether they really exist at all, other than in the minds of policymakers, is both contentious and doubtful. History shows us, for instance, that this has always been perceived as an urban rather than a rural problem, part of a broader indictment of urban life. In the 1950s, for example, professionals focused on the state of people's homes, and it was the 'problem mother' (often with alleged mental health issues) that was the cause of the family's problems; poor parenting and behaviour were highlighted, rather than low incomes or poverty.

No one doubts that there are very real and growing problems in Britain, to do with poverty, unemployment, poor housing, the breakdown of traditional family structures, drugs, alcohol, and yes, the behaviour of some people. But overall, how these families are defined over time, and the different attempts made to tackle them, tell us much more about the people defining the 'problem', and much less about the families themselves. On the face of it, spending £448m to save £9 billion sounds sensible. But the speech returns us to the deserving and undeserving poor, and is a distraction from the real issues. For what history tells us is that while there are certainly families with problems, 'problem families' are an invention of politicians and policy-makers.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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