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Five reasons why "smart cards" for benefits claimants are a bad idea

Iain Duncan Smith's latest proposal betrays a lack of understanding of the real problems faced by "troubled families".

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last month's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

"Troubled families" could receive their welfare payments on smart cards, rather than in cash. In a move close to satire, Iain Duncan Smith has asked his Work and Pensions officials to see if certain groups should be legally barred from spending their benefits on alcohol and cigarettes.
By being given a "card", the 120,000 families dubbed "troubled" earlier this year would only be able to use welfare to buy things like food, clothing, and housing.

As the Telegraph points out, this would require a change in the law. The government cannot currently stipulate how people spend their benefits. There's probably a reason for that. In fact, I've come up with five.

1. Paternalistic

Explaining his thinking, Duncan Smith has said:

I am looking at the moment at ways in which we could ensure that money we give them to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle. I am certainly looking at it – I am going through that in some detail… With the use of cards, we are looking at that to see if we can do something.

The language is pretty telling. Welfare isn’t an entitlement but something the government "gives"; pocket money bestowed to the children by a patient (and increasingly strict) father. A troubled family is one who spends what they’re given on a "certain lifestyle"; one deemed inappropriate.

What’s interference for the rich is assistance for the poor.

Putting to one side the morality of dictating what people spend their benefits on, it’s an idea that only encourages the dehumanising effect of the "troubled family" categorisation.  Already deemed the problem element at the bottom rung of society, they’re now not even capable of making their own decisions. Conservative insistence on "responsibility" is abandoned for the group who need chaperoning to spend money. And why shouldn’t they? These people use their children’s food money to buy vodka.

2. "Troubled" equals poor or disabled

In fact, the government has always seemed unsure who these people are. According to its own guidelines, a "troubled family" is one that meets five out of seven criteria: having a low income; no one in the family who is working; poor housing; parents who have no qualifications; where the mother has a mental health problem; one parent has a long-standing illness or disability; and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

This seems rather different to "people who are using benefits to fund a habit and [their] children are going hungry", Duncan Smith is said to be targeting. It’s because the definition of "troubled family" conflates poverty, ill health, unemployment and criminality. Duncan Smith talks about drug addicts and alcoholics but one look at the government’s definition means he’s referring largely to the poor and disabled. His proposal to deal with people who don’t buy their children food because they’re drug addicted would in fact target people who don’t buy food because they can’t afford it.

3. No understanding of the problem

Even if "troubled families" were households where a parent was an addict, changing the way their benefits are paid is unlikely to change that. The belief that it would reflects not only a poor understanding of addiction but the wider thinking behind the entire "troubled family" initiative: the problem is one of individual failure and the government is not there to provide help.  

Despite what conservative rhetoric about the "deserving" and "underserving" poor rhetoric suggests, there’s rarely a clean divide between the problems that affect people’s lives. Someone who is sick, funnily enough, can also be an addict.

4. No understanding of disability

Due to the practicality of monitoring what’s in people’s trolleys, it’s unlikely that a "welfare card" will be accepted everywhere. Many people with a disability or long-term health problem use online shopping (often, in fact, a stipulation of their care plan in order to cut costs of providing assistance). Others are only able to use their local shop because of transport problems. Putting controls on what disabled people can buy can make it difficult for them to buy anything.

5. Oh, and no understanding of the facts

The government aren’t just unsure who "troubled families" are. Fact checks show they’re not sure how much they’re costing the state or how many there are

This may partly be because the original policy, designed to deal with 120,000 families, was based on interviews conducted with 16 families. It may also be because the much used 120,000 number is a figure drawn from one piece of research conducted eight years ago. It's not just the mortality of the policy that's flawed, then, but the data it’s born from.  

It seems telling someone how to spend their benefits meets at least five criteria of "troubled." By Duncan Smith’s own thinking, that means we’ve got a problem.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham.

She tweets as @frances__ryan.