Broken Britain. Moral decline. Feral youths. These and many more weary clichés have been trotted out in the past week in an attempt to explain the rioting, looting and vandalism witnessed in cities across the country. And none of them comes even close to doing so.
The crushing inevitability of the rush, in some quarters, to blame family breakdown and single parents is as depressing as it is familiar. Of the 3 million children being raised in 1.9 million single parent families in the UK today, only a miniscule fraction will have been involved in the riots, alongside a tiny fraction of those being raised in families with both parents. But certain sections of the press and commentariat have been swift to judge single parents, as they often do, as ultimately responsible. One MP even used this reasoning to shoehorn a call for marriage tax allowance - one of the biggest wastes of government funding imaginable - into the subsequent parliamentary debate.
But let's get a little perspective here: the vast majority of single parents, alongside the vast majority of parents in general, do a great job of bringing up their children. Many of them do so despite the odds being stacked against them, with single parent families twice as likely to live in poverty as couple families. And let's not forget that being poor doesn't automatically mean being a poor parent; it just means parenting while struggling against the many challenges of living on a desperately low income.
Similarly, the depiction of young people as 'monsters' or 'wild beasts' serves only to reinforce the pre-conceptions of certain adults, rather than seeking to truly understand the many and complex factors that contributed to the violence and vandalism last week. It is already clear that those who took part were a varied bunch, amongst them adults as well as young people, those with jobs, degrees, and 'prospects' alongside youngsters still at school or on the dole. Where is the easy explanation for the participation of the millionaire's daughter, the trainee social worker, the college student? And where is the distinction between organised criminal gangs taking advantage of initially unprepared police, bored kids who wanted a piece of the most exciting action they'd seen all summer, and passers-by who couldn't resist joining in?
If we resort to lazy stereotypes and sweeping generalisations that tarnish all young people, or all single parent families, with the same brush, then the only certainty is that this knee-jerk response will store up more problems for the future. And I already fear for the many thousands of youngsters who now walk down the street and get nothing but fear, suspicion and hostility directed at them by the very adults we're asking them to look up to.
It is in these days immediately following the riots that we will set the tone for how we respond over the longer term, and the reaction of the public so far has been striking. At its best this has shown true community spirit and a collective rising up of the good, exemplified by the @riotcleanup movement and echoed by scores of other, smaller initiatives to help the individuals and businesses affected, to give young people themselves a chance to respond (including #notinmyname), through to the gentle charm of Anti-Riot - Operation Cup of Tea.
At its worst, however, the legitimate shock, fear and anger generated by those dark nights last week have hardened, for some, into brutal assessments of how those who took part should be treated. I, like many others, sat transfixed by the rolling news coverage of Monday night's domino effect of riots spreading across London - ever closer to my south London flat - with a feeling of growing panic. But in the cold light of day does anyone really think that evicting people from social housing will do any more than foist their problems onto a different neighbourhood, when the evidence shows that what works is an intensive intervention to treat the root causes of the most dysfunctional families? And by all means use the full force of the law and sentencing options available to punish those who have committed criminal acts, but where is the sense in taking away benefits from offenders' families and plunging them into abject poverty?
Over the days, weeks and months ahead there will be much soul-searching about the riots, and the only thing that seems clear so far is that there are no easy answers, and certainly no easy solutions. But we do ourselves a disservice if we don't take the time to understand in full what the many and varied causes were, and what can be done differently to stop anything like this happening again.
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