‘Troubled Families’ or ‘Troubled Bankers’?

There is no end to welfare in sight; yet welfare is no longer for the poor

Daniela and JohnnaAs we all know, the 2008 financial crisis exposed major flaws in contemporary financial markets; the continued public-policy response is an unprecedented commitment to open-ended corporate welfare to the financial services sector and, in particular, banks.  In the UK at last count, the ‘direct costs’ of the initial bail-out is conservatively estimated by the National Audit Office at £1.3 trillion, with other much higher figures measuring ultimate direct and associated costs of the financial crisis.  Importantly, there is a blank cheque attached to existing public expenditure commitments to the financial services sector because ‘the Treasury retains the unquantifiable ultimate risk of supporting banks should they threaten the stability of the overall financial system again’.

Why this policy programme is not a scandal perplexed even the then Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in his testimony before MPs in 2011:

The price of this financial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it…Now is the period when the cost is being paid, I’m surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has.

The non-scandal of corporate welfare to The City is in effect the ‘strategic silence’ in the political economy of welfare reform in Austerity Britain – a policy programme designed and justified using the discourse of scandal and unsustainable costs to taxpayers.

Feminist political economy provides the only relevant set of conceptual tools to understand how public welfare for corporations is justified and yet public welfare to households vilified.  Of course, many critical theories offer their own concepts to frame ‘why’ corporations are favoured over the household.  For example, different variants of Marxism explain the relative power of factions of capital or simply assert the general abstraction of the labour-capital conflict.  Post-structuralists offer an altogether different account of power, in which the governmentality of finance is created and made through the conjuring of different neoliberal subjectivities.   However, both approaches are fundamentally weak in conceptualising the household and therefore offer only generalised theories of the ‘power’ of finance, albeit based on very different core conceptions.  By contrast, feminist political economy is able to make visible the ‘how’ by providing with intersectionality (the notion that class, gender, sexuality and race are intrinsically linked) a conceptual and methodological framework to evaluate what differences matter; and, more importantly, how they are made to matter through structure, discourse and everyday practice.

Most people can accept that ‘Troubled Families’ is a scandal because it justifies welfare spending cuts.  What is significant, though, is how this scandal is made. The ‘Troubled Families’ discourse mobilises longstanding narratives of poor women with children as a ‘threat’ to the general public.  Right up until the Beveridgean welfare state, unmarried women with children (generally referred to as ‘whores’) were deemed a threat to public decency, while married poor women were a threat to public stability because they ‘bred’ countless children and thus filled the legions of the underclass.  Today, ‘Troubled Families’ are similarly a threat to the public finances and stability.  As David Cameron states:

I want to talk about troubled families.  Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase.  Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’.  Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are a source of a large proportion of the problems in society.  Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse.  Crime.  A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.  We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money.

As of August 2014, the cost of ‘Troubled Families’ is estimated, very generously, at £30 billion, which includes the direct cost of benefits and estimated costs of services to these families.  To put this in some perspective, this is equivalent to a mere 2.3% of the (conservative) estimate of ‘direct’ costs of £1,300 billion of taxpayers’ money already spent supporting the banking sector.  Put in this context, it is clear that the ‘costs to taxpayers’ is marginal when compared to any other line of expenditure.

What is more relevant is the powerful imaginary of the threat that ‘Troubled Families’ pose to the rest of society.  In short, a ‘Troubled Family’ is a threat not simply because it has problems, but rather because it supposedly causes problems that must be dealt with using public money and services.  These families are constituted overwhelmingly by households headed by single mothers. The gender dynamics thus being statistically obvious, they are also formative of the discourses that legitimise the targeting of poor women for welfare reform, whilst leaving rich men untouched or, even worse, supported by corporate welfare.

Interviews that we have conducted with ‘Troubled Families’ programme directors in different locales as well as nationally have shown a deep gender bias, with lifestyle choices of poor women being condemned as morally wrong.  Exemplary is one programme director who expressed almost a resentment at welfare help given to poor women in need:

I think there’s an anomaly, in the sense of, going back culturally and in the government of the country, it was very much geared towards single-parents, and you’re talking about women, aren’t you?  It was very much geared up towards women and women were given three-bedroom properties, for instance, and then felt the need potentially to fill those with children.

Juxtaposing the proclaimed crisis of ‘Troubled Families’ with the apparent non-crisis of ‘Troubled Bankers’ exposes why gender matters in permanent-crisis Britain.  It is women and children that are deemed to threaten public finances and thus singled out as needing of reform.  By contrast, the hedonistic lifestyles of City bankers are not held up as the underlying cause of their welfare dependence, although they might very well be.  Their ‘private lives’ are neither the subjects nor objects of reform.