For everything else, there’s Mastercard

17th October is the UN’s Day to Eradicate Poverty.

From Steven Sumpter’s second post on the dreadful plans to card “troubled” families, I learned that the government have decided that a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria:

  • Low income
  • No one in the family who is working
  • Unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
  • Poor housing
  • The mother has a mental health problem
  • Parents who have no qualifications
  • One parent has a long-standing illness or disability

As LatentExistence and many others have pointed out, what this amounts to is that a troubled family is one that’s living in poverty.

And the ESRC have come right out and stated that the government have basically made up their own minds about what it all means. They said ”In the term ‘troubled families’ it deliberately conflates families experiencing multiple disadvantage and families that cause trouble.” The definition that the government are using does not mention child truancy, criminal records, ASBOs, police call outs, drug abuse, or any of the other things that they claim to be addressing.


The first four criteria in the order listed amount to nothing more and nothing less than a family of school-age or younger children, where the only parent or both parents have lost their jobs, so they naturally then have a low income, and they’re likelier than ever to live in poor housing. Given those circumstances, it would be surprising if a single mother was not experiencing depression. At that point five out of seven criteria are matched, and bingo – the government will take action – there’ll be less understanding and a tougher approach, because if you’re out of work, you’re living in substandard housing, your kids are going hungry and badly-clothed, and you yourself are experiencing depression such that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning, well, what you need is an Azure card, isn’t it?

It is quite likely that none of these conditions are under the control of the family themselves, and yet under government plans they can be penalised for it. Even worse than that, though, is the presence of illness, disability and mental health on that list. These are definitely not under the control of the people involved, but it is clear from what Eric Pickles told The Independent that the government do blame these people. Pickles said that these families must end an “it’s not my fault” culture of excuses and must stop avoiding taking responsibility for their own lives. He said that there would be “less understanding” and a tougher approach.

Asylum seekers Azure card The Azure card is the card issued to failed asylum seekers in the UK to keep them just one step above destitution. I wrote about this (and why the Camerons and the Windsors don’t count as “troubled” families no matter how much they cost the country) in Problem family on the cards.

Eric Pickles apparently vaguely remembers West Side Story, but doesn’t seem to remember what actually happens.

Eric Pickles said:

“It’s basically ‘dear Officer Krupke, I’ve come from a single home, my mother’s a drunk, it’s not my fault’, all that kind of thing. Sometimes when you meet some families, they have got the language, they are fluent in social work.” While he acknowledged that the last Labour government had made “honest” attempts to tackle the problem, he claimed that progress had been held back by political correctness and a reluctance to “stigmatise or lay blame”.

Families who caused him grief when he was leader of Bradford council in the late 1980s were still causing problems a generation on, he said. There are an estimated 1,760 troubled families in the city today. In Birmingham the figure stands at 4,180, and in Manchester 2,385. Cornwall is estimated to have 1,270 such families and Durham 1,320. Charities including Barnardo’s have stressed the importance of early intervention, saying many parents heading troubled families “will have experienced poor parenting, abuse or neglect themselves”.

Goodness, it’s almost as if Thatcher’s government and Bradford council wasn’t doing a very good job with “problem families” between 1979 and 1990 when Pickles was a councillor. But why should Eric Pickles be asked to take responsibility for that? Taking responsibility for how their governance affects the poorest and most vulnerable is not what Tories do.

Instead, they want to punish the worst off and benefit big businesses. Steven Sumpter ticks off the obvious problems:

the first problem I can see with this scheme is that it will favour big businesses and supermarkets and leave small local shops and markets by the wayside. There will be costs involved in accepting these payment cards which small shops will be unlikely to be able to afford, as well, I’m sure, as checks to make sure that shops honour the restrictions . Street markets are usually cash only which would bar people from getting cheap local fresh fruit and vegetables too.

The second problem is related; because of barriers to accepting the smart cards or to restrictions on what can be purchased people will be barred from shopping around for cheaper food and some will be prevented from purchasing specialist items that are required for their health but are not prescribed or considered by government to be necessary.

The third problem, and possibly the biggest problem I see is that sick or disabled people often have no choice in where they shop. The limited ability to travel or to carry things can mean that the nearest shop is the only one they can use. If small shops are not able to accept these cards then there may be no other source of food open to these people.

These cards were being lobbied for at the Conservative conference by Mastercard and Demos. Max Wind-Cowie, Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos, claims that

The fact that government currently exercises little to no control over how benefits are spent – while the vast majority of us wish that it would – should bring home the growing gulf between our expectations of what is reasonable in relation to welfare and the policy responses on offer.

In my view, there are two possible justifications for limiting what benefits can be spent on. The first is in the case of alcohol and drug dependent claimants – whose addictions are ruining their lives and often the lives of those around them. These are people whose illness is all-too-often being enabled by the payment of cash-benefits, which allow them to fuel a destructive habit and makes recovery all the more difficult. By giving this group smart-cards, that could only be used to buy groceries and essentials, and by targeting treatment, we could do a lot of good with minimal harm. This is not about punishing the sick – it’s about enabling their recovery.

Max Wind-Cowie hasn’t noticed or doesn’t care that the five criteria for “troubled families” can be fulfilled without anyone in the family being on a “destructive habit”.

As Steven Sumpter notes:

Addiction is powerful and removing funds doesn’t mean that people won’t be addicted any more. If someone is dependant on nicotine or alcohol then providing benefits on a restricted smart card will not prevent them from obtaining these things if they have to. It will lead to a black market – to bartering of valuable items for cigarettes and alcohol, or to selling of benefit funds for much less than the real value resulting in less money for the benefit recipient. It could well lead to theft to feed the addiction. It will certainly drive some into prostitution. Drug dependency drives people to desperate measures and they won’t always be rational.

And the most powerful question of all:

we must ask why society deems it acceptable to tell those who are least fortunate that they must not have any pleasures or enjoyment. It seems that those who must rely on benefits are resented and even envied for what they have. Some is illogical; for example Motability cars are not a luxury, they are required for people who cannot walk to get to medical appointments or to go shopping and the cars are leased not given. Internet connections may be the only way that some people can shop, communicate, pay bills, claim benefits or get support and yet some people still think that an internet connection is a luxury that those on benefits should not have. People who have TVs and perhaps TV subscriptions are resented, but for those who are forced to stay in the home by illness or have no funds to go out it may be the only thing to occupy their time. Should these people be forced to sit and stare at the wall for the rest of their lives? We seem to have broken the concept of national insurance. When a person who has worked and paid their dues becomes unemployed or unable to work and receives benefits they are resented for claiming benefits that they have been paying for while working. Must they too give up all pleasure in their lives? We can be certain that restrictions along these lines will exacerbate or even cause mental health problems.

The cards are just something Iain Duncan Smith is considering.

Actually, Eric Pickles’s public plans are to cut £448m from other services to pay for 40% of a “network” of people who can “identify” these “troubled families”, and offer councils a deal – cut their budget to fund the other 60%, with the promise down the line of more money if

a local authority manages to cut a family’s level of truancy, anti-social behaviour, or benefit dependency, it will receive extra money.

Helping people who are unemployed, have nowhere decent to live, whose children are going without basic necessities, doesn’t work if your funding is aimed at punishing them.

From the New York Times editorial of 14th October 2011:

For a year now, Britain’s economy has been stuck in a vicious cycle of low growth, high unemployment and fiscal austerity. But unlike Greece, which has been forced into induced recession by misguided European Union creditors, Britain has inflicted this harmful quack cure on itself.

Austerity was a deliberate ideological choice by Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, elected 17 months ago. It has failed and can be expected to keep failing. But neither party is yet prepared to acknowledge that reality and change course.

Britain’s economy has barely grown since the budget cuts began taking effect late last year. The most recent quarterly figures showed the economy flat-lining, with growth at 0.1 percent.

For everything else, there’s Mastercard.

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2 Comments

Filed under Poverty

2 responses to “For everything else, there’s Mastercard

  1. When it comes to disability, the problems are not limited to being restricted to the nearest shop. During the difficult winter of 2010 to 2011 I wasn’t able to get outside my home at all for three months. Many disabled people are permanently housebound. If we were obliged to be there to use our own cards, we wouldn’t be able to shop at all. Perhaps there would be an online shopping option, but this would, at best, entail the extra costs of delivery and of maintaining an internet connection (which I need for work but which for many people is a luxury). As it stands, if I get stuck, I can give some cash to a friend and they can shop for me. With Azure cards, people like me may simply starve.

    • Yes.

      The number of ways in which this card would be a bad, bad idea are just the stories from the asylum seekers whose application failed initially and who got the “Azure Card” and stories I’ve read include an HIV asylum seeker who was sometimes too weak to shop for himself, and whose friends really didn’t have the money to spare to shop for him. There are charities that do ad hoc cash grants to asylum seekers just to keep them alive and they are constantly short of money because there’s always more people in need than they have donations to give to them. We should be repealing the Azure card, not rolling it out to cover anyone else.

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