"Benefits encourage problem families, says Iain Duncan Smith"

This is the page 1 headline from today’s Daily Telegraph. Duncan Smith is suggesting that allowances for more than two children should be largely suspended. This is shaping up as a major assault on families who receive benefits.

The Telegraph article claims that

  • “many of those receiving money for large families had drug and alcohol problems… There are about one in five households where no one works and 1.5 million children are growing up with a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol.”
  • “Official figures show that 120,000 of the most troubled and difficult families cost the taxpayer about £9 billion a year.”
  • “Every household is now spending the equivalent of £3,000 a year in tax for welfare payments.”

They comment that “The benefits system is supposed to be a safety net — not a lifestyle choice to encourage people to have so many children they will always have to be dependent on the state”.

Here, I am something of a disadvantage – their job is much easier than mine. I am supposed to respond with evidence; they can just make things up. The actual evidence is not very strong, but here is what I’ve been able to dig up.

  • The figures for parents with drug and alcohol problems are reviewed in Children’s needs – parenting capacity, TSO 2011, pp 36 ff. They report estimates that 705,000 children live with a parent dependent on alcohol in the UK, and that in England, Scotland and Wales up to 360,000 children have a parent who misues drugs. Those figures may overlap, but they come nowhere near 1.5 million. There is no direct connection between these factors and being out of work.
  • The definition of ‘troubled families’, which I have considered in this blog before, is primarily based on material disadvantage, not on the presentation of social problems. No justification has been given for the estimated cost.
  • The Telegraph’s figure for “welfare payments” seems to be a rough estimate based on total expenditure for benefits. (Correction, 28th October: This figure is actually a mis-quote from the Secretary of State, who claimed that working-age benefits were costing £3000 extra over the period of the Labour government. The original claim is also inaccurate, and I have considered it in more detail in a subsequent entry for 28th October.))
  • Benefits can hardly be described as a ‘lifestyle choice’ if people don’t choose to stay on them. I have reviewed the figures for long-term dependency on this blog before. Most people who are dependent are pensioners; among non-pensioners, the vast majority are disabled; hardly anyone is continuously in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance.

The key point made by Duncan Smith is that benefits create perverse incentives for large families. With that in mind, I’ve reviewed the evidence about large families on benefits. The evidence is not strong; the best figures I was able to find from the DWP stop in 2007. The figures come from the DWP tabulation tool, based on their 5% sample of claimants.

The first question is how many ‘large’ families there are. There were 1,380,000 families with children in receipt of benefits – the other claimants were families without children. Of those, 190,000 had 3 children, 71,000 had four and 35,000 had five or more; that is 21% of the total. This is higher than the proportion of families with 3 or more children in the population as a whole, but we are talking about less than 300,000 families. Larger families on benefit tend to be older families; in the majority of cases (58%) their youngest child was at least five years old.

Further note, 27th October: Channel 4 has found better, more up to date information resulting from a Freedom of Information request. In May 2011, there were 1,354,280 families with children in receipt of benefits: 194,220 had 3 children, 76,310 had four 25,980 had five, 8780 had six, 3200 had seven, 1080 had eight, 360 had 9, 130 had ten and 50 had 11 or more. That comes to 310,110.

The second question is whether benefits encourage people to have children. I cannot tell from the figures how many people have children while they are on benefits, but at least I can say something about the age of their families.

Duration on oldest
current benefit
All families with children At least one child under 5 % with a child under 5
Less than 2 years 499,600 272,100 55%
2-5 years 340,600 169,400 49.7%
5 years or more 539,700 136,800 25%
Total 1379,900 611,300 100%

The table shows that, while some families do have children while in receipt of benefit, families who get benefits for longer periods are markedly less likely than others to have children. There are obvious reservations to make about these figures – for example, I do not have the precise ages of the children, and I cannot break down families by the age of the parents – but there is no reason here to accept that people on benefits are being encouraged to have children.

Multiple disadvantage in Scotland

The Think Tank Demos has published a report about multiply disadvantaged families in Scotland. Families are described as “multiply disadvantaged” if they meet four or more of seven criteria:

  • low income
  • worklessness
  • no educational qualifications
  • overcrowding
  • ill health
  • mental health problems
  • poor neighbourhood.

There are 131,000 households who are multiply disadvantaged by this definition. Of those, 52,000 are pensioners, and 55,000 are households without children; 24,000 are households with children. The category of pensioners is based on 3 criteria of 6, because it excludes worklessness; overcrowding is not really a useful indicator either.

This is not the same test as the Westminster government uses for its definition of “troubled families”. That test is based on them meeting five of the following seven criteria:

  1. having a low income,
  2. no one in the family who is working
  3. poor housing,
  4. parents who have no qualifications,
  5. where the mother has a mental health problem
  6. one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and
  7. where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

The overlap between the criteria does make it plausible to suggest, though, that someone who is “multiply disadvantaged” in the Demos report will probably also score four or more on the “troubled families” score. As the Demos authors note, there is no implication that families who are disadvantaged in these terms present problems for other people – but there is no reason to suppose that from the criteria for “troubled families” either. And there has to be some suspicion about the tenor of a report which goes on to tie the characteristics of poverty to alcohol, drug use and child neglect – none of which applies to most, or even to many, of the families identified through these statistics.

The finding that there are only 24,000 families with children in Scotland who are multiply disadvantaged even on as few as four indicators does raise some questions about the direction of policy, which has tended to focus on the characteristics and culture of poor people as something set apart. There are some points to draw from the figures:

  • Scotland is a society where more than one person in six of working age receives an ‘out of work’ benefit, and a quarter of Scotland’s children are in low income households – but the vast majority of people in this position are not ‘multiply disadvantaged’ by the definitions in this report
  • showing that social problems are more prevalent than elsewhere does not mean that they are actually likely – most people who are ‘multiply disadvantaged’ do not have them
  • if the number of families who might be said to be multiply disadvantaged by these criteria is small, the numbers who might after that be said to suffer ‘intergenerational deprivation’ in these terms is, necessarily, smaller still
  • while multiple disadvantage is a legitimate cause of concern in itself, it is neither typical of poor families or commonplace.

It makes sense to design policies that can effectively reach people who are most disadvantaged. Poverty in Scotland is much more widespread, however, and it makes no sense to make such policies the basis for anti-poverty strategy more generally.

"Troubled" families

Louise Casey’s report, Listening to Troubled Families, does what it says in the title: it reports the concerns of issues of a number of families with problems. She’s convinced that intensive social work can make a difference, and as far as that goes I have no disagreement. But there are serious problems in the language that she is using, and in particular in her persistent references to inter-generational problems. She’s talked about “welfare dependency and sexual abuse going back generations.” She refers to “entrenched cycles of suffering problems and causing problems”. She claimed that “problems such as sexual abuse, teenage pregnancies, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency and educational failure were often repeated by different generations.”

This argument has a long history. “Troubled families” have been called degenerates, moral defectives, the abyss, problem families, multi-problem families, the ‘hard to reach’ and the underclass. The claim that they passed problems from one generation to another features in arguments on degeneracy, the culture of poverty, the cycle of deprivation, transmitted deprivation and the dependency culture. And what we can say about all of these arguments, because there are decades of evidence to draw on, is that they are not true. The population of people who have problems now is not substantially the same as those who will have problems in ten years’ time. Most adults have varying experiences through their lifetimes. Most children from deprived backgrounds are not deprived as adults. Keith Joseph, who coined the phrase “the cycle of deprivation”, set up a major social science project to investigate it. From that project, we know that if, over a long period of time, we begin with a cohort of the most deprived children and follow them through the generations, their great-grandchildren will have much the same profile as the rest of the population. For example, as part of the work, a thousand deprived families in Newcastle were followed through the generations. They did not pass down problems from parent to child. (The main source is I Kolvin and others, Continuities of deprivation, Avebury 1990.)