Here’s a good example of the distortion that can happen in that murky space between research and policy.
There are purported to be between 117,000 and 120,000 'families with multiple problems'. Last week Louise Casey, the government’s adviser on ‘troubled families’, appeared to be basing policy on interviews with sixteen pre-selected families. Eight of the sixteen families had four or more children. Seven had five or more, while two families had nine and twelve children respectively. Were they representative, and if so, of what?
Inevitably, eyebrows are raised because we know how it works: you have a political steer and a theory – in this case, the sceptic might say, the theory concerns families that deviate from the Surrey-Oxfordshire norm, not least by being poor – and you find the evidence to support it.
This is also an example of the government's presented style of pragmatic understanding of issues: not unwelcome if done properly. Casey shows aggressive determination to be doing ‘the right thing’ (a favourite coalition hollow phrase) which is ‘to get our sleeves rolled up nationally, locally and in these people's lives.’ Many of those whose lives she wants to get stuck in and change
‘have large families and keep having children, often with different fathers, even if they are struggling to cope with the children they already have.’
Well, this government still funds independent researchers, I'm pleased to say, so let’s hear what one of them has to say, while we still can. In a paper on the ESRC’s Poverty and social exclusion website, Ruth Levitas summarises Casey’s presentation of the problem as
‘one of large families by multiple partners forming a burgeoning dysfunctional underclass resistant to reform.’
But Levitas says that from what we know of the sample, having ‘loads of children’ cannot be shown to be one of the characteristics of families with multiple problems. Nor are the children from these families ‘overwhelmingly likely to be involved in crime and anti-social behaviour or be excluded from school.’
The accepted definition of a family with multiple problems is one that has five of the following seven characteristics:
No parent in the family is in work;
Family lives in overcrowded housing;
No parent has any qualifications;
Mother has mental health problems;
At least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity;
Family has low income (below 60% of median income);
Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.
So it’s reasonable to ask why Casey has picked out some other feature, assumed rather than evidence-based, on which to focus.
Some large families on low incomes, with or without multiple problems, will be trembling at her threatened approach, like aboriginals at the appearance of armed self-righteous missionaries. And the rest of us will continue to be subjected to the poisonous message that poor people who have lots of children are a burden, requiring a muscular 'sort-you-lot-out' approach from the haves.