Jonathan Portes says that the government's plan to tackle 120,000 "troubled families" is based upon an abuse of data. He points out that the official definition of a "troubled family" is based upon poverty and ill-health, not upon criminal or anti-social behaviour.He says:
The "troubled families" in the Prime Minister's speech [in December] are not necessarily "neighbours from hell" at all. They are poor.
Now, Jonathan and Tim pointed out the flaws in the data weeks ago. So why is the government persisting with the error?
Jonathan thinks it is because it is because they are too embarrassed to admit their error. I fear, though, that some other motives might be present.
One is simple arrogance. As I've said, it could be that the Tories' belief that they are entitled to govern has created a lazy complacency that leads to avoidable error.
Secondly, there's the pursuit of spurious precision. It's plausible that criminal behaviour follows some kind of power-law distribution; a few people commit a large proportion of crime. But leaving it at this is not good enough for politicians. A precise number grabs press attention, gives the impression that ministers know what they are doing, and emboldens them to think they can do something. Keynes once said that it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong. Not in government, it isn't.
I fear, though, that there's worse. Eric Pickles says:
These folks are troubled: They’re troubling themselves, they’re troubling their neighbourhood.
But as Jonathan has said, the latter does not necessarily follow from the former. Sure, some troubled families cause trouble for others; anything is true of someone. But that 120,000 number does not measure this. So, why conflate being troubled with causing trouble? An obvious possibility is that this government thinks that being poor is itself a moral failure, and so exaggerates the correlation between being criminal and being poor. This is, of course, an ancient impluse. Here's C.B. Macpherson describing 17th century attitudes:
The Puritan doctrine of the poor, treating poverty as a mark of moral shortcoming, added moral obloquy to the disregard in which the poor had always been held. (The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, p226)
In this sense, the coalition's attitude to troubled families is part of the same mindset that gives us its latest attack on the families of immigrants. Both are motivated by a suspicion that the less well-off are morally defective. The government isn't just abusing the data. It is abusing the poor themselves.