4. ‘Problem Families’: the Legacy of Eugenic Opinions on the ‘Poor’

“UK riots: should there be a curfew?” The Guardian (9 August 2011)

“UK riots: should there be a curfew?” The Guardian (9 August 2011)

In the wake of the ‘England Riots’ of August 2011, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, confidently asserted that “a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society,” and that within these families there exists a “culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.” With remarkably similar issues in mind, in 1945, The Times called the ‘problem family’ an “unsolved problem of national eugenics.” Subsequently, the British Eugenic Society formed the Problem Families Committee in 1947. What can the ‘problem families’ discourse tell us about the legacy of the eugenics movement today? Are we ‘enlightened’ now in our perceptions of the poor?

The eugenic classification of ‘problem families’ began in the 1940s. However, scholars have argued that the term was the successor of social attitudes going back to the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the Secretary of the Eugenics Society, Carlos Blacker (1895-1975), reflected in 1952 that “the dark side of urban industrialism, interest in the social importance of genealogy, concern over mental defectives, preoccupation with the prevention of hereditary infirmities, problems of war evacuation from large towns, and, most recently, the stirrings of conscience about children, have each, at different times, focussed attention on problem families.”

The term ‘problem families’ was first used in 1943 by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) when referring to the often squalid living conditions of evacuated children. It became an issue of national importance and a significant obstacle for the welfare and public health professions. As we have seen, ‘problem families’ were also understood by some to be a eugenic problem. Biological determinism had coloured British eugenic attitudes to the poor since the early twentieth century; not least in their abortive push for the sterilization of ‘mental defectives’ in the 1930s. In 1945, even the Bishop of Birmingham, E.W. Barnes, had lamented the presence of problem families in Britain’s “towns and villages,” whom he believed to be inherently “sub-human, immoral, dirty, thievish, and untruthful,” with many also carriers of ‘mental deficiency.’  However, by the time Blacker published Problem Families: Five Inquiries in 1952 (a national study conducted by the Problem Families Committee), this explanation no longer seemed adequate. The study had demonstrated that “[t]he interaction of nature and nurture is here so close as to make it exceedingly difficult to distinguish the separate effects of each.”

C.P. Blacker (1895-1975), Secretary of the Eugenics Society

Carlos Blacker (1895-1975), Secretary of the Eugenics Society

Despite their seemingly elusive nature, ‘problem families’ remain a national issue. In 2012, after extensive fieldwork – including time spent with 16 ‘problem families’ – Louise Casey, the head of David Cameron’s ‘Troubled Families Unit,’ concluded that: “There are plenty of people who have large families and function incredibly well. The issue for me, out of the families that I have met, [is that] they are not functioning, lovely families. One of the families I interviewed had six social care teams attached to them: nine children, [and a] tenth on the way. Something has to give.”

Louise Casey pictured with David Cameron in 2013

Louise Casey pictured with David Cameron in 2013

In her article for The Guardian website, Zoe Williams criticised the project as a “demonisation of the poor.” However, some ‘commenters’ praised Casey’s work for identifying “those who perpetuate anti-social behaviour generation after generation and get away with it.” Moreover, several readers (perhaps from opposite ends of the political spectrum) on the Daily Mail and The Guardian websites suggested measures once considered eugenic. For some, while “[n]o one can force them to stop procreating,” in the case of ‘problem families,’ the “number of children should be limited.” However, remarkably, a significant minority agreed either that “Child Benefits [should be capped at] one child per parent” or that the introduction of “Voluntary sterilisation with a modest cash incentive” was the only way to solve the problem family.

Eugenic ideology no longer colours discussions on the ‘problem family’ as it once did. Indeed, present concerns over the relationship between family size and social background, are not influenced by eugenic concepts such as ‘racial degeneration’ or ‘biological improvement,’ as they were in the inter- and immediate post-war periods. However, it seems that even today debates on poverty and reproductive freedom are still influenced by a desire to control existing populations and future generations.


‘Social Casualties’, The Times (15 October 1946), 5.

‘Euthanasia and Sterilization,’ The Manchester Guardian (21 May 1945), 3.

C.P. Blacker, Problem Families: Five Inquiries (London: Eugenics Society, 1952).

D. Cameron, ‘Troubled Families Speech,’ Number 10, (15 December 2011), [www.number10.gov.uk/news/troubled-families-speech/].

“UK riots: should there be a curfew?” The Guardian (9 August 2011) [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/poll/2011/aug/09/london-riots-curfew].

Winnet and J. Kirkup, “Problem families ‘have too many children.’ Telegraph, (July 20, 2012), [www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9416535/Problem-families-have-too-many-children.html].

Williams, “The real ‘problem’ with these families is that they’re poor,” The Guardian, (July 18, 2012), [www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/18/problem-families-poverty].


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