Britain’s expanding ‘underclass’

Government changes to criteria for classifying “troubled families” will this week see 380,000 more enter the category. Who are they and how can they be helped? Simon Wilson reports.

What is an ‘underclass’?

It’s that entrenched section of society that is worse off than the working-class, and appears to have no ability or will to escape its lot. The term is controversial, and is used more by journalists than by academics or policy-makers.

Some find the term offensive, arguing that it demonises the urban poor and lumps together a complex range of social problems. On the other hand, the concept of an entrenched underclass has a long tradition in the social sciences.

Who belongs to this class?

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish social scientist, defined the US underclass as the “class of unemployed, unemployables, and underemployed who are more and more hopelessly set apart from the nation at large and do not share in its life, its ambitions and its achievements”.

Part of what sets them apart is that they are living hand to mouth. For Oscar Lewis, the US anthropologist who is also sometimes credited with popularising the term, the chief characteristic of the underclass is a “strong present-time orientation, with little ability to delay gratification and plan for the future”.

Why is the concept so controversial?

Critics say it tends either to tacitly or explicitly blame the worst off in society for their lot, downplaying other factors and confusing poverty with criminality. That’s a criticism that has been made, too, of the phrase ‘troubled families’ – the expression currently favoured by UK policymakers to talk about Britain’s underclass.

The coalition government’s Troubled Families programme was launched by David Cameron following the 2011 riots as a way of tackling Britain’s “broken society”.

The stated aim was to “turn around” the lives of 120,000 of the “worst” families in the UK – as defined by poverty, lack of work, poor housing, lack of educational attainment, and other criteria relating to long-standing disability and/or physical or mental illness – using intensive interventions led by local councils and social workers.

‘Troubled’ or ‘criminal’?

The language used by Cameron at the time made it crystal clear that the targeted families were not just “troubled” – they were causing “trouble”. “Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’,” Cameron said. “Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families” are “the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime.”

Following criticism that it was conjoining two separate issues without evidence for doing so, the government quietly shifted the criteria for defining “troubled” to include families “involved in crime and anti-social behaviour”. But the number of families targeted remained at 120,000 – a number that the government has just expanded to 500,000.

Has the scheme worked?

Partly. According to government figures, 53,000 of the 120,000 families targeted by the £448m scheme have had their lives “turned round” – meaning that an adult in the family has found work, or that truancy, antisocial behaviour and child crime rates within the family have dropped.

This week, however, the government announced that it was changing its definitions again, making it ever harder to evaluate the success of the programme. From now on, families will be classed as “troubled” if they tick just two of six boxes: crime or antisocial behaviour, truancy, “children who need help”, unemployment, domestic violence and abuse, and a range of health problems.

According to the head of the programme, Louise Casey (see below), the expansion means that some 500,000 families will now fall within its remit.

How much does all this cost?

According to government figures, the costs to the taxpayer of the 120,000 troubled families is £9bn a year, or £75,000 each. That figure is arrived at by adding together all the benefits they receive, plus the estimated costs of all the public services they disproportionately draw on – policing, health care and so on.

The Sunday Times splashed on the news that the rise of the “new underclass” would cost the taxpayer £30bn a year. That’s not an official figure, but a guess made by the newspaper.

It’s based on an assumption that all the families who have recently been redefined as ‘troubled’ would cost £50,000 per family. In other words, a good deal of the data available on this issue is vague and speculative.

However, it’s clear that intensive intervention schemes appear to work for something like half of families. That’s based on the evidence of the past three years – and from the experience of a similar scheme between 2007 and 2010. At a cost of around £14,000 per family per year, that looks like a reasonable return on investment for taxpayers.

The troubleshooter

Three successive prime ministers have turned to Louise Casey, head of the government’s Troubled Families programme, to work with those at the margins of British society, says The Sunday Times. Casey, 49, was appointed deputy director of Shelter in 1992, and spearheaded the creation of Shelterline, the UK’s first phone helpline for homeless people, in 1998.

She avoids the term “underclass”, but is frank enough to call the 120,000 “troubled” families the “worst families in Britain” – although she says this is not meant pejoratively. “There is an acceptance that the poor will always be with us,” says Casey. “I spend my entire life saying that’s not how it has to be.”

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