One man’s tax evasion is another’s working cash-in-hand

The coalition government’s policy on benefits is a puzzle. Early indications suggest that its planne

I once visited a family whose teenage son was in danger of getting them evicted from their house. The 15-year-old had met a man in the pub, invited him back to the family home, got drunk on vodka (bought by his mother: "I had to buy it for him because we had a really bad night with him, he threatened to smash the house up"), had a fight with the man, hit him over the head with a plank from his bed, then dragged him into the road and left him there unconscious and in danger of being run over.

It was a claustrophobic meeting in an uncomfortably overheated sitting room, with Jeremy Kyle on the television in the background: "Is my friend pregnant with my boyfriend's baby?" The most depressing thing in the room was a large dog, sweating and miserable on the sofa, its eyes glazed.

One of the many social workers attending the family - there were at least five involved with the 15-year-old boy alone - noted the dog as soon as we entered. It had been in and out of the rescue shelter. Two days after collecting it once before, when they were unable to cope, the mother had declared she couldn't even manage to return the animal and asked the social worker to do it for her, eventually persuading a neighbour to take it back to the pound. Two weeks on, the dog was back in the house again. It seemed a visibly depressed sign of a family unable to control anything, even a decision about a dog. I sat and listened to them protest that their lives were being made impossible by all the social workers now involved with them; they were all going round in circles. Like the dog.

Double agents

Too many people, no progress: it's a familiar story for anybody who works with dysfunctional families, from school support staff to social worker, housing official to community support officer. As the support workers and the meetings go round in circles - a "care plan", a "targeted review", a "multi-agency meeting" - the families become simultaneously dependent on and resentful of them. This impotence has been identified as one of the significant features of social exclusion; poverty is about power as well as pennies. The larger the number of public agencies involved in a family's welfare, the worse that draining and unwanted dependency can become.

I was thinking about this as I read that the Labour MP Frank Field has been appointed by David Cameron to lead a(nother) review of poverty in Britain, a problem framed by Cam­eron as deep poverty and multiple deprivation; the gap between the bottom and "the mainstream" (whose mainstream?). This would focus policy on the crushing social problem of embedded, long-term, deep poverty, not the marginal and temporary spells of poverty that people drift in and out of. Field intends to investigate whether the practice of measuring poverty in relative terms - as households with less than 60 per cent of median income - should be scrapped in favour of an absolute measure, which would "lift" many families out of poverty at a stroke.

Nobody can be sure how many families live in "deep poverty". Official statements of the income of low-earning families are wildly inaccurate. A social anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, Massimiliano Mollona, lived and worked with steelworkers in a dep­rived part of Sheffield for 18 months. The average recorded income in the area was £4,000 per year per family; Mollona estimated the real
average family income to be roughly £17,000. An "informal economy" of illegal activity involving drugs, sex and stolen goods, unrecorded work and cash payments subsidised families' declared incomes from work and benefits.

In many ways, these are good signs; they indicate efforts made by people without a lot of control over their lives to exercise what power they can to improve things for their families. You avoid tax; I work cash in hand. Poverty of power - which is affected by low income, but not determined by it is what I would try to address if I were a politician, rather than worrying about precise measurements of financial poverty.

The ambition of trying to cut well-meaning bureaucracy that attends troubled families has got to be positive. "I don't want any more people involved in our case," protested the stepfather of the teenage boy I visited. "I don't want you to get another agency on our case. I went to the last meeting - there was too many of them." These agencies cannot give a person back the power to control their lives; they usually take it another step away from them, and with a lot of accompanying duplicate filing, too.

Benefit busters

Yet the real intent of the Lib-Cons is a puzzle. I suspect they may not know what it is themselves. When I interviewed Iain Duncan Smith a few years ago, he said a startling thing: "Using the phrase 'social justice' is very challenging to Conservatives." Now Duncan Smith is Work and Pensions Secretary and can use the phrase as often as he likes. He has had some good but expensive ideas for increasing the autonomy of poorer families, yet the regressive instinct of the Conservative Party remains to protect the middle classes and hit the poorest financially. Is that social justice?

Despite rhetoric about how the forthcoming spending cuts will be painful for us all, the Cameron government has reportedly ruled out means-testing "middle-class" benefits such as child benefit or the winter fuel allowance for the foreseeable future, and intends instead to freeze all benefits and force people off incapacity benefit, measures that will hit the poorest disproportionately. This past weekend, Nick Clegg suddenly hailed the Clinton welfare reforms, which removed lifelong entitlement to benefits altogether. I feel like that miserable dog, watching these people drift in and out, babbling, without a clue what they all mean.