Spending government money on broken relationships isn’t going to help families torn apart by new benefit cuts

What’s the point of spending £30m to help families to stay together when you’re going to cut benefits at exactly the same time?

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The Independent Online

After uncovering research which suggests – no great surprises here – that children whose parents are in constant conflict are less likely to perform well at school, the Government has dug down the back of the sofa and uncovered its own findings: £30m in cash to support families dealing with relationship crisis, and in particular those families in crisis where no adult is in work.

It is part of the latest phase of the “troubled families” programme, much criticised for pathologising virtually every single bit of bad luck it’s possible to have, from unemployment to illness, depression to low income, disability to being poorly housed.

The figures that motivated this, and previous troubled families schemes, are stark: three-quarters of children brought up in households where nobody works fail to reach their expected potential at age 16 when they sit their GCSEs, compared to half in lower income families who do work. This is compounded, Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green now says, by parental discord: some 300,000 families out of work experience conflict in the home.

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Finding £30m to help families stay together, or to support separated couples to co-parent their children peacefully, is no bad way to spend public money – especially when it’s spent on those families who are already experiencing significant disadvantages due to being out of work. There is clear evidence that it could lead to significant positive social results, not only for the children in those homes but for the life chances of their adult parents too.

But what’s the point of all this effort when you’re going to cut benefits at exactly the same time?

The extension of the fundamentally flawed troubled families scheme (which, with another £215m piled in and a new focus on unemployment – now incredibly common in our new “gig” economy – stretches the definition of “troubled” to absolute breaking point) comes as the Government brings into being a number of benefit cuts that will hit families, especially those on low incomes, hard. A series of cuts, one might deduce, that will put untold pressure on family relationships.

First, the two-child limit on tax credits will come into force, meaning that no further tax credits can be claimed for families with more than two children even if the cost of supporting that family is already proving near impossible. This is a cut of up to £2,780 per year per household for large families. It is akin to a wealth tax on family life. It is immoral, and will do nothing to help keep homes and households together.

On top of that the “family element” of the child tax credit, worth £545 a year to some families, is being removed, reducing the incomes of an estimated 970,000 families by 2020. Cuts to bereavement support, for which Theresa May has received deserved criticism, come into force, as does the removal of £30 a week from disability benefit, taking £350m a year from the overall disability benefit pot by 2020.

That £30m to help workless families in conflict looks rather meaningless now.

Relate – one of the organisations which will benefit from this additional funding to support families to stay together – cites money worries as the top of the 10 most common reasons for conflict between partners and eventual relationship breakdown. Stress is also another factor in marital breakdown, yet financial worries are often in themselves a source of acute stress.

Meanwhile, the obsession with defining unemployment as a key indicator of “trouble” in the home is causing its own problems. As has been the case since the very beginning of the troubled families scheme, first set up in the wake of the 2011 summer riots, it’s hard to see how the children of these parents in crisis will be identified and supported. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation pointed out, three-quarters of children who live in “workless” households also have a lone parent. They may be workless because they are doing the job of two parents; they won’t benefit from cash for “conflict resolution” because they are doing the job of two parents alone.

Half of those children also live in families where at least one person is disabled. There is a huge amount of work going on in those households – it’s just work that is undervalued and under-recorded by an economy that fails to monetise the invisible, intimate tasks of care, parenting, domestic work and emotional labour. And if you want to add to the strain on the relationship between a disabled parent and their partner who cares for them, cutting disability benefit is a simple way to go about it. Rather than an investment, £30m seems almost a waste in this context: good money squandered after bad policy, once again.

Once again the Government has issued warm words as it diagnoses the problems that hold children back, but its choice of treatment is potentially more harmful than the illness.

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