One of the most familiar ideas in British public policy has been that of ‘troubled’ families – a relatively small group with problems including poverty, poor education, unemployment and criminality passed down through generations. These families need intensive and costly state attention – or so the argument goes – to prevent them disrupting wider society.
In the latest version, David Cameron has spoken of the government’s intention to “get to grips” with what he identified as the 120,000 such families in England, said to be costing the state £9bn a year.
For decades, the essential analysis of an ‘underclass’ has proved remarkably durable. Yet it has never been quite as easy to demonstrate empirically or to quantify its existence.
The remarkable recurrence of this idea has been traced by Dr John Welshman of Lancaster University. It began with the concept of a “social residuum” in the 1880s – which built, he suggests, on earlier theories about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. But it was now a “more coherent concept”, “open to different interpretations”.
The geographical focus for such concerns was very much urban, reflecting wider angst about the consequences of rapid industrialisation.
At different times, the idea has been underpinned by varying kinds of social and medical theory. Dr Welshman notes that the social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb and a young William Beveridge were expressing their concern in the early 1900s about the ‘unemployable’. Alongside this was a fear that such individuals and families could “contaminate the working class”.
There have been relatively brief periods when this focus has been less marked. From 1914, for example, war brought greater social cohesion and more employment opportunities for everyone. But by the 1930s there was talk of a “social problem group”. It was an idea shaped partly by interest in eugenics and the birth rate among certain segments of society – concerns that were once more influential on both the left and right of politics than we might now prefer to recall.
The creation of the welfare state offered new weapons to combat some of the problems of poverty and poor educational attainment linked to these groups. But the spectre of the ‘problem family’, to some extent impervious to such help, simply wouldn’t go away. A report in 1956 in The Times quoted Chesterfield council’s medical officer of health proposing that his town’s “incorrigible problem families”
should be put in special “austerity housing” with steel window frames and concrete floors to separate them from “good standard neighbouring families”.
Less punitive solutions proposed around this time included the temporary removal of some families to residential accommodation where they would be offered more intensive assistance and instruction. In more recent decades the concept of ‘social exclusion’ in public policy has echoed the idea of a group cut off from mainstream society, developing in a different and often destructive way.
There is also much more emphasis now on the possibility of change, especially through intervention at a young age. But there are still striking continuities, suggests Dr Welshman, in the focus on the “alleged physical and mental characteristics of the poor”, behavioural inadequacies, and the stress on problems passed from parents to children in a ‘cycle of deprivation’.
“Arguably most marked,” he adds, “has been the emphasis on the cost of these individuals to the taxpayer and the state” – a development that has been encouraged by the way in which “alarmists” have reported such theories.
Suggestions that a defined group of families cause such expensive social disruption have always guaranteed dramatic headlines for political initiatives. So deep-rooted has this analysis become that we should expect more versions to follow in the future, to add to those traceable for well over a century.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org