“Troubled” families: All you need is shortbread

Four years ago, when my eldest son was still a few months short of his first birthday, his father decided to take him to a new baby group. But not just any new baby group – rather than go to the local Sure Start centre, man and boy ventured across to the other side of town, to the place that we call Poshville. As far as baby groups went, it was not in fact different from any other, except that when it came to coffee time, there weren’t any biscuits. My partner commented on this, and mentioned that you got them at the Sure Start Centre in Scumsville. “Well, you would”, said one of the posh mummies, “you need to bribe those lot with biscuits or they’d never get away from the TV.” My partner responded by saying that in fact, we lived in Scumsville and had seven Oxbridge degrees between us. Whereupon everyone was very apologetic for misjudging the scummers and their relationship with custard creams.

I am not sure why the mention of degrees proved so effective. It’s not as though the awarding of a PhD brings with it a lifetime’s supply of rich tea. But I guess it shows we’re not quite the people they assume “those lot” to be. We might be in Scumsville but we’ve got class – and our class is most definitely “middle”. Even so, I’d imagine we’re seen as the exception which proves the rule (whatever that means).

Louise Casey, head of the government’s “troubled families” unit, has produced a report into the life and times of those living at the bottom end of Scumsville – and believe me, what happens there gets much worse than succumbing to biscuit bribery. According to the Guardian, the report paints “a grim picture of teenage parenting, educational failure and physical and sexual abuse carried down through generations”. Blimey! And what’s more, it’s linked to welfare dependancy. Somehow or other. And here we are in the midst of it. It’s shocking, really, to think of what goes on behind closed doors in the largely degree-free, Jeremy Kyle-watching, digestive-chomping community where I live. I thought the unspoken “no biscuit, no baby bounce ‘n’ rhyme” law of the streets was bad enough, but no – the “troubled” are all abusing their young, too. Oh, okay, not “all”. But such things are, you know, happening. And it is, obviously, helpful to lump together claiming benefits with child abuse when talking to the press. It’s important to stop this ridiculous habit of thinking that the two things are different.

Thankfully I don’t come from a “troubled” family. We had our issues – don’t we all? – but it wasn’t like I was ever beaten or anything (NB people who have degrees don’t beat, they “reasonably chastise”; this is the law). Moreover, it’s not like there were ever instances of depression or mental illness in my family (we only use Prozac and anti-psychotics to treat states of profound intellectual Weltschmerz). Nor did we encounter any genuine instances of extreme abuse amongst our kind (there was this one man who killed his wife, back when I was at school, but like my mum told me, she was a right nag and made his life a misery. So that one doesn’t count). No, I’ve led a very sheltered life, which is why I eat my bourbons without even acknowledging the potential for bribery. This must also be why I adopt a wussy, liberal approach to my local community, assuming those around me who are on benefits might yet be moral beings. I am such a gullible idiot. I only wish I could be more like Eric Pickles, whose civil servants “are not just sitting in an office inWhitehall telling local authorities what to do but seeking to gain a true understanding of the challenges they face”. Yay! Go them!

Of course, sometimes crises do arise in non-troubled families. A middle-class man might, for instance, kill his children and himself. But this kind of thing would be a “tragic family situation”. It’s got nothing to do with any broader cultural currents or preconceptions about who is or isn’t troubled or coping (although it might have something to do with Facebook, if you write for the Daily Mail). Anyhow, that’s just families and how they are. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own particular ways, according to Tolstoy, and everyone quotes that, so it must be true. But it’s only true if they’re not “troubled” families i.e. poor.  And if they’re “troubled”, well, different rules apply.

According to the Guardian, Casey feels that “some families needed “a very big stick”, such as the threat of eviction or antisocial behaviour orders “or other tools of the criminal justice””.Well, that’s all well and good (apparently). But one thing to remember before all that – especially if we’re looking to save precious resources – is that these people – they’ll do anything for a Fox’s Party Ring.