speri.comment: the political economy blog

A Big Broken Society?

British society is broken, but it is an indifferent and disconnected elite that is really to blame

Daniela Tepe-Belfrage, Faculty Research Fellow, Social Sciences, University of Sheffield

Daniela‘Broken Britain’ is the rallying-cry of the coalition government’s welfare reform agenda in the wake of sluggish growth since the 2008 crisis. The rhetoric of Broken Britain deploys the usual fond remembrance of by-gone years when moral norms were apparently stable and universally accepted. Now, we are told, we face social decay at the hands of a growing underclass, with their welfare dependence and propensity for family breakdown, which effects us all. The causes of this decay are, according to this logic, not rooted in political processes and socio-economic relations but attributed to failures of individuals, who are ultimately responsible for their own fate.

The contradiction here is clear: Conservatives announce individual responsibility and argue for cuts to state services, while calling for a policing and disciplining of the everyday lives of people, in particular those of the ‘underclass’.

This discourse relates directly to the political practice of welfare cuts, the restriction of access to welfare and disciplining policies targeted at the very poorest in society. Single-parents (and here in particular single-mothers with more than 85% of single headed families in the UK being headed by women) are the group most vulnerable to poverty.

Let’s take a closer look at the purported ‘causes’ of Broken Britain: welfare dependence and family breakdown – and what effects these discourses and policy practices have on single mothers.

The idea that welfare dependency is responsible for a lack of aspiration is widespread and particularly targeted at single mothers – with claims that single mothers look to make a career out of the benefits system. The bitter consequences of the welfare cuts and limiting access to welfare, especially for single mothers, have been widely publicised. This indicates a drastic change in the perception of the ‘deserving poor’. Single women with dependent children have, traditionally, been considered worthy of welfare support but Broken Britain breaks with this tradition.

Yet, these measures do not have the intended consequence of ‘getting people on their feet’. With benefits being cut, costs of living and childcare soaring and maternity and family services closing down, it leaves families in despair. Looking at the Poverty and Social Exclusion website gives some insights into the destructive consequences these measures are having– 3.5 million children in the UK living in poverty in 2012/13 with an expected 600,000 children more in poverty by 2015.

Looking closer at ‘family breakdown’, the unbroken family seems to consist of married parents who ‘give and take, support and sacrifice – values that we need more of in this country’ to build and secure the Big Society. These families and their values break when, in particular, fathers disappear from the picture.

Absent fathers have been one of the main targets of Conservative attack, being blamed for the lack of male role models in children’s lives, causing children to grow up without the virtues of ‘stability, fidelity and work ethic’. Apart from undermining years of feminist research and practice this talk is highly offensive to women – suggesting women cannot foster these ‘virtues’ in children. Indeed, the idea that a ‘work ethic’ would be intrinsically male defeats historical accuracy as well as problematically devalues female work in and outside the household.

One of the Coalition’s flagship projects is the Troubled Families Programme, designed to ‘turn around’ the lives of the up to 120,000 families in Britain, justified because of the costs to the ‘public purse’. Troubled families are ‘those involved in youth crime or anti- social behavior, have children who are regularly truanting, have an adult on out-of- work benefits, cost the public sector large sums in responding to their problems’. The programme encourages councils via financial rewards to appoint dedicated case-workers to individual ‘failing’ families helping them to change their lives.

Individuals are blamed for their failures and structural factors or the larger socio- economic context, such as health related issues, poverty or poor housing, are ignored.

The accuracy of the ‘troubled families’ statistics is highly controversial because it is by no means clear how these numbers are collated to arrive at the figure of 120,000. Importantly, given the ‘absent fathers’ polemic – it is unclear how many of them are actually female-headed households. Freedom of information requests to central government and the ten councils with supposedly the most Troubled Families- Liverpool, Manchester, Essex, Lancashire, Kent, Bradford, Norfolk, Sheffield, York and Leeds- have, so far (some still outstanding) shown, that other than Bradford, none of the local councils collate statistics on the composition of the ‘troubled’ families.

As these examples show, cuts to welfare, limitations to access welfare and intensive teaching and monitoring of the poor are meant to discipline the poor. Poor women, in particular single mothers, are particularly affected by these policies and suffer the most from the almost entire neglect of structural factors that contribute to poverty.

A political strategy that blames the most vulnerable in society for failure is a sign of a Broken Society. It shows the absence of compassion and moral integrity that enable community in the first place.

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