Beyond ‘troubled families’

Beyond ‘troubled families’

28th January 2013

The Prime Minister’s speech on Europe drowned out the publication of The Cost of Troubled Families. Europe received big headlines and a steaming Twitter frenzy, while the report’s highlighting of extreme, expensive families (one costing over £400,000 a year) was denied the debate it deserved.

This is an idea that has come around before. The last Government, pressured by Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) findings that showed family breakdown was a critical national issue, took the bull by the horns in 2007 with the Think Families agenda. This recognised the important role of families in a stable society, but focussed its analysis and efforts on the relatively small number of families facing profound and ‘multiple problems’ such as worklessness, anti-social behaviour and chronic truancy. These are the families which ostensibly cost the most and cause their community the most aggravation.

That these families need intensive and specialist support is irrefutable and of crucial importance. By the current Government’s metric, they comprise the 120,000 so-called ‘troubled families’ of the eponymous programme led by Eric Pickles and Louise Casey at the Department for Communities and Local Government. As the report published on Wednesday reinforces, there is a strong economic as well as social case for early intervention and prevention.

Yet to follow this approach alone is to ignore the extensive evidence gathered by the CSJ showing that more general family breakdown blights communities across the country – and at a far higher total cost to the tax payer. Family breakdown in its entirety costs the Government an extraordinary £44 billion a year. And so UK taxpayers pay £1,470 a year to pick up the pieces of this failure.

Family breakdown has a detrimental effect on all parts of society. There are huge numbers of people affected; each family who breaks up adds to the bill – even if the ‘only’ major problem they are facing is relationship dissolution. Children’s biggest fear is that their parents will part – tragically almost half will see that biggest fear realised. Only 55 per cent of 15 year olds are still living with both their parents.

The consequences of family breakdown beyond the ‘troubled families’ result in reactive spending in tax and benefits, housing, health and social care, civil and criminal justice, and education and young people not in education, employment or training. We know that the problems of family breakdown tend to be reinforced and replicated in the next generation: children of divorced parents are twice as likely to experience divorce themselves as children of non-divorced parents. The best way of helping the troubled families of tomorrow is by making sure that they never become ‘troubled’. Unless government seeks to encourage family stability across all parts of society, there is a danger that this disadvantaged group will continue to grow.