There may be trouble ahead… & behind


but while we still can let’s face the music & dance

By Elizabeth Lee Reynolds

Waking up this morning (early afternoon) to read about the devastating cuts coming into effect today and in the very near future [i] made my stomach turn a little (& desperately hope it was all a very bad April Fools’ joke). Mostly though I questioned for about the thousandth time how and why the tories think these disgustingly unequal policies will really help our economy, or society in general.

Of course the simple answer is they are posh deluded little bastards, drunk on power and entirely out of touch with the real world. But there is a much longer answer that traces an attack on the Underclass/Problem Families/Other somewhat derogatory term you wish to use that has been present in both this nation and others for a very long time.

The following piece is a not particularly edited essay written for John Welshman’s HIST277 course In Search of the Underclass: Politics and Poverty in Britain Since 1970. I do recommend this module to anyone who happens to do history at Lancaster. Although it is a little frustrating and I sometimes found the whole thing to be a little derogatory and also the majority of people who take it seem to be posh quasi-conservative prats who enjoying examining the “Underclass” as if they were another species, it is pretty interesting and reveals how there seems to be a Cycle of Misunderstanding in governments towards those struggling in society.

Even if you don’t read this I strongly encourage everyone to read some of the resources I used for it, particularly: Ruth Levitas’ enlightening explanation of where the government got their figures and facts for 120,000 Troubled Families (Ruth Levitas, ‘There may be ‘trouble’ ahead: what we know about those 120,000 ‘troubled’ families’, Poverty and Social Excusion in the UK, Policy Response Series No. 3 (2012) pp. 4-5 I slightly stole the name for this post from her, but she stole it from above song) & Richard Wilkinson’s ‘What difference does inequality make?’ which is a very straightforward explanation of how inequality is undeniably incredibly detrimental to society. Seriously everyone read it! It’s not very long at all & is possibly one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a while ( John Welshman’s articles are also pretty interesting in regards to a history of inequality and “Underclass”. & If you can be bothered to find it in the library I also found Frank Field’s Unequal Britain A report on the Cycle of Inequality an interesting read (historically wise).

This essay is written on David Cameron’s approach to addressing the issue he sees of ‘Troubled Families’ in Britain (of which there are supposedly 120,000) and how this exacerbates an unfair view of those who suffer most in society and who his current furore of cuts effect the most. Although this was written pretty recently the Coalition’s attacks have been so rapid in the last few months the examples given can sometimes seem a little outdated, apologies for that. & sorry for this unnecessarily lengthy introduction, so finally here goes… (oh & add your own witty caption as to what Cameron could be saying in the photo, I had a few but I can’t edit a photo to save my life)

In December 2011 David Cameron made a speech addressing the need for the Government to focus more on an alleged 120,000 ‘troubled families’ in England. This idea is certainly nothing new in Government policy or academic rhetoric on those considered to be at the bottom of society. The similar concept of ‘‘problem family’ became a preoccupation during the Second World War’ which itself ‘metamorphosed’ from ‘the search for a ‘social problem group’’ in the 1920’s and early 1930’s.[1] Since then, the ideas of ‘Underclass’ and similar concepts have become a focus of social science and national politics. There are multiple differing explanations to these societal issues; those who say it is an issue of individual behaviour and others who understand the problems as being rooted in larger structural issues. Here my focus will be on the latter of these perspectives and this analysis shall propose that the state is creating a sense of an enemy within society, through the concept of ‘troubled families’, to divert attention from larger issues of inequality across the population.

The speech was made in the wake of the London Riots that rippled across cities in England over a few days in the beginning of August 2011. Like the aforementioned debates on poverty itself, the London Riots provoked a variety of commentators; the events began with a protest for Mark Duggan, a young man shot by a policeman, in Tottenham but quickly escalated to acts of arson, looting and other violence throughout London and spread through the country. Cameron himself recognises that for this escalation to occur the riots would have to be seen as ‘a boiling over of problems that had been simmering for years’. [2] Tottenham not only has a ‘history of riots’[3], such as the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, but is also one of ‘London’s poorest boroughs’[4]. These facts point to the idea that for decades there has been something structurally wrong within this part of the country, yet whether this was what motivated the looters is another matter. While some commentators suggested that ‘the riots were more apolitical’[5] others stress there were some looters who ‘expressed a political rage – about the way the cuts affected communities, about having no route to social or economic mobility’[6]. It would be naïve to call either of these analyses wrong; the riots were a consequence of both behavioural and structural issues, but it must be remembered while some opportunistic looters grabbed television sets and trainers others grabbed less materialistic items like food, pointing to a sense of need rather than simply desire.

While acknowledging this issue of a fundamentally unequal society Cameron glosses over the issues at the top of society, claiming that action has already been taken, and focuses his attention on the 120,000 families he perceives to be the real issue. In his speech Cameron stated that ‘a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society’ (Cameron, 2011) making it evident he is taking an immensely behavioural approach to the issue and ‘the consequences of that behaviour for society’ (Cameron, 2011). It can be said that what Cameron achieves here is to demonise those who may be considered victims of an unequal society. The main point of evidence for this claim is where Cameron got the figure of 120,000 families from. Ruth Levitas reveals the source to be analysis from a 2004 Families and Children’s Study, which designates the families to be those with five of seven characteristics, being: no parent in work, overcrowded housing, no parent with qualifications, mother with mental health problems, at least one parent with long standing disability and showing a level of material deprivation.[7] These criteria clearly reveal families suffering from problems, rather than the image the Coalition creates of families causing problems. This is confirmed by the Communities and Local Government report which lists the criteria of ‘troubled families’ as having ‘no parent… working, children not being in school and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour’, although this report also uses the original 120,000.[8] The report also fails to acknowledge where they have calculated the alleged £9billion that these families cost. It is evident that they are combining those that have troubles and those that are troubling to society into one, confirmed by Eric Pickles’ statement that they are ‘both troubled and causing trouble’ (Levitas, 5).

This failure in understanding the specific problems that people have is nothing new in government policy making, the New Labour government launched the Family Intervention Project which was criticised of failing ‘by targeting the wrong people for the wrong reasons… while failing to tackle the real underlying causes’, particularly in areas like mental health.[9] Much earlier governments proposed radical solutions to ‘problem families’ such as the suggestion of ‘segregation and sterilisation’ in the 1940’s.[10] Despite politicians often focusing on behavioural problems, academics and commentators can often take a more structural view. This can be seen by examining, for example, the difference between Keith Joseph’s concept of ‘Cycle of Deprivation’, which focuses on people’s inadequacy as parents and other personal failures, and the concept Frank Field raises of ‘The Cycle of Inequality’. Field marks the issues caused by the increasing gap between rich and poor making aspirations constantly out of grasp for those at the bottom of society, these problems range from income to health.[11] It is evident through multiple studies that there is a psychological effect of inequality and deprivation can lead to the behavioural aspects politicians often choose to focus on.

Frank Field reports data from 1973 showing that at this point the richest 10% in Britain accounted for 99% of income (Field, 59). This uneven distribution continues today, for instance last year it was noted the richest 1,000 people had increased their wealth by £155bn, enough to pay off the current deficit with a meagre £30bn to spare.[12] In his speech Cameron acknowledged that ‘when one group in society seems to have a life apart from the rest, that can have a corrosive effect on others’ (Cameron, 2011); he lists some ways he is tackling the problems at the top of society but it is plain to see that in reality his policies have increasingly been focused on welfare cuts. One must question the government’s commitments to tackling inequality when their recent decisions include a ‘challenge on EU agreement to slash bankers’ bonuses’ and the bedroom tax, reducing benefits to people in social housing with “spare” bedrooms.[13] Academics have argued that this problem of inequality is what makes ‘some of the most affluent societies seem to be social failures’; these unequal relationships in society increase the feelings of anxiety and lack of trust as well as violent tendencies.[14] Despite these issues inequality has been proved to cause, it is unsurprising that David Cameron chooses to focus as little attention on them as possible, especially since his own fortune has been rumoured to be inherited from off-shore tax avoidance[15]. There is also evidence that these early head starts have given Cameron the boost needed to reach the heights of Prime Minister while others struggle to dream of such aspirations. In a study in India it was shown that children who previously received similar results in tests began to achieve differently when they were made aware of their social position, those from lower castes performance was substantially reduced (Wilkinson, 4), thereby the structural creates the behavioural.

Through rhetoric like the ‘troubled families’ the government not only reaffirms the social stratification of citizens, but also sustains a demonisation of lower classes that is propagated in some media, creating an enemy and threatening ‘other’ in society. This discourse is perpetuated by politicians and certain media outlets over successive generations, aggrandising the section of society who ‘choose to live on the dole’ and a creation of a ‘‘Shameless” culture’ (Cameron, 2011), has successfully shaped the public opinion on welfare. A TUC survey carried out at the end of 2012 showed a shocking disproportionately negative response towards benefits from the public. When asked how much of the welfare budget they believed went to those unemployed, the average answer was 41% while the true figure is only 3%. Similarly on average people believed almost half of those on Jobseeker’s Allowance claimed for over a year when the true figure is just over a quarter; overall the poll revealed an immense hostility towards welfare with 59% agreeing it had created a culture of dependency.[16] These kinds of opinions and their amplification by those in power continues a negative image of underclass and undeserving poor, which are concepts that have been present in the debate for decades. These types of ideas help to keep the marginalised of society away from the concerns of the mainstream, such that cuts to benefits and other areas of the public sector may be seen to only affect those who deserve it, because they refuse to find other means to sustain themselves.

However, as is increasingly being made clear, it is not just those who, for whatever reasons, only receive money from benefits that suffer from the severe cuts that the Coalition Government are making. For example, in February 2013 it was revealed that in certain areas of Lancaster and Morecombe, such as Heysham North, one in three children are living in poverty, with Councillor Margaret Pattison commenting that ‘[m]ost people that are suffering at the moment are working people’, proving that those effected are the deserving poor as well as those some may consider undeserving.[17] Again this approach to those in poverty is nothing new, politically it was agreed in the early 1950’s ‘that the problem was not poverty’, although, as it is today, many academics opposed this behavioural analysis and pointed to overarching structural issues.[18]  This negative image of those on welfare, no matter what their situation, can be seen to be continued in Cameron’s speech with lines such as ‘I hate the idea that we should just expect to pay ever larger amounts in welfare to an ever larger chunk of society… and never expect the recipients to change their lives’ (Cameron, 2011). It may be argued that influencing these ideas allows him to make the damaging cuts to welfare that he intends with little public outcry as so many people think it is pushing those who are idle to work, when in reality the damage is far more widespread.

By focusing his interest in families who are struggling at the bottom of society and failing to tackle the issues that are made at the top, extending the already immense inequality, the Coalition succeeds in averting attention from the source of the financial crisis that currently plagues the majority of the global markets.  Events like the London Riots can only be expected when those already suffering the most in society are put under further pressure because of a financial crash they did not cause. Even when some behaviour can be marked as apolitical and opportunistic it is undeniable that the spark for this violence is lit by ‘class-motivated, Cameron-led coalition initiatives’ (Scambler, Politics of Class). It is overwhelmingly apparent that Cameron, and his party as a whole, is one that is motivated by class interests. From its traditional ideological foundations there is an acceptance of inequality in Conservative thinking. Edmund Burke, regarded as the founder of modern conservative philosophy, asserted that social inequality ‘was part of the natural order’.[19] The supporters of welfare, the Liberal Democrats, have been absorbed and the Tory policies win out in an ideologically contradicting Coalition.

The Coalition, or more truthfully the Conservatives, have focused on the 120,000 ‘trouble families’ because it allows them to perpetuate and extenuate the inequality within society. While events like the London Riots break out and there is an increase in movements against the cuts across the country the government realises some may be waking up to their hypocrisy. Against this, policies like the ‘troubled families’ programme help to keep the anger of the general public focused on ‘scroungers’ living off ‘the dole’.


[1] John Welshman, ‘‘Troubled Families’: the lessons of history, 1880-2012’, History and Policy, October 2012, 8th March 2013

[2] David Cameron, Troubled families speech, 2011

[3] Karim Murji and Sarah Neal, Riot: Race and Politics in the 2011 Disorders, 8th March 2013

[4] Mary Riddell, ‘London riots: the underclass lashes out’, The Telegraph, 8 August 2011

[5] Graham Scambler and Annette Scambler, Underlying the Riots: The Invisible Politics of Class, 8th March 2013

[6] Jenny Bourne, ‘The line between the political and the criminal can be a blurred one’, The Guardian, 26 September 2011

[7] Ruth Levitas, ‘There may be ‘trouble’ ahead: what we know about those 120,000 ‘troubled’ families’, Poverty and Social Excusion in the UK, Policy Response Series No. 3 (2012) pp. 4-5

[8] Financial Report on The Troubled Families Programme by Department of Communities and Local Government, 2012, pp. 3

[9] The troubled families agenda- what does it all mean?, Adfam briefing, 2012, pp. 6

[10] John Welshman, ‘Troubled Families’: parallels with the past, 8th March 2013

[11] Frank Field, Unequal Britain A report on the Cycle of Inequality, (London: Arrow Books, 1974) pp. 62 (can be found in Lancaster University Library)

[12] Michael Meacher MP, The scourge of our wealth divide, The Guardian, 2 May 2012

[13] Nicholas Watt, ‘UK to fight EU plan to cap bankers’ bonuses’, The Guardian, 28 February 2013

[14] Richard Wilkinson, ‘What difference does inequality make?’, Monthly Review, (2009) pp. 1

[15] James Kirkup, ‘David Cameron’s inherited family wealth ‘based in foreign tax havens’’, The Telegraph, 21 August 2012

[16] Pete Murray, ‘Govt relying on ignorance to support benefit cuts- survey’, 8th March 2013

[17] Nick Lakin, ‘Charities reveal pockets of high child poverty’, Lancaster Guardian, 28 February 2013

[18] John Welshman, ‘Troubled Families’: parallels with the past, 8th March 2013

[19] Frank O’ Gorman, Edmund Burke: His Political Philosophy, Volume 2 (London: Routledge, 2004) p.46 (Don’t look for this, Burke is a berk, as the name would suggest.. I really think he might be where the insult came from, maybe in a few years we’ll be calling people a cameron…)

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