The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 2)

In December of last year, David Cameron announced that his ‘mission in politics’ was to fix ‘the responsibility deficit’ and to support this goal, he committed ‘£448 million to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by the end of this Parliament’. Everyone will no doubt wish the Prime Minister well with this aim of turning around the lives of some of our most disadvantaged families but one must strike a note of caution. What he is proposing to do has never been achieved (if it had, he presumably wouldn’t need to do it). And what is more slightly more troubling, is that the government appear to be intent on doing the same things that others have done in attempting to help ‘problem families’, whilst making unprecedented cuts to public services at the same time.

Professor David Gordon of Bristol University has written that:

The idea of a group of feckless, feral poor people … can be traced from the Victorian ‘residuum’ through theories of pauperism, social problem groups and multiple problem families to the underclass arguments of today (Macnicol, 1987; Mazumdar, 1992; Welshman, 2006).  The problem of poverty was blamed on ‘bad’ genes before the Second World War and on ‘bad’ culture after the discrediting of the eugenics movement by the end of the War.

He goes on to note that the ten year long Transmitted Deprivation Progamme conluded that ‘problem families do not constitute a group which is qualitatively different from families in the general population’ and also reports that a later review of ‘problem family’ literature argued that ‘the idea should be abaondoned’ as it was ‘intellectually incoherent and unsupported by sound scientific evidence’ (PSE, 2011).

The appointment of Louise Casey to lead the Troubled Families Unit in DCLG and a recently announced ‘financial framework’ for Local Authorities working with these families suggest that the rhetoric about ‘turning around the lives’ of these families actually means stopping them for carrying out certain behaviours. Casey is, of course, best known as the ‘Respect Tsar’ (or the ASBO Queen if you read the Daily Mail) and her appointment suggests that ‘tackling’ troubled families will be higher on the agenda than supporting them.

The financial framework identifes 3 areas for improvement over a 6 month period before a ‘payment by results’ allocation to Local Authorities. These areas relate to educational attendance, reduction in ASB and/or youth offending and progession towards employment. Of the original criteria for being a problem family, only the employment status needs to be improved in order for the government to ‘pay out’ and claim a positive result in turning around the life of a family and for a Local Authority to receive funding for helping out. Adressing the other criteria such as material deprivation, poor quality housing, maternal mental health and low income doesn’t figure in terms of what counts as a radical transformation. As long as a family stops behaving like ‘neighbours from hell’ their lives are considered to have been turned around. There is no incentive to take a longer term approach

Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level, made a comment at the Children North East child poverty conference late last year on this subject. His view was that whilst local services are very important, they can only do so much and, unless underlying inequality is addressed, then even if we can turn around the lives of these 120,000 families, another 120,000 will just ‘move up’ and take their place.  The government appear to be happy with tackling the symptoms, whilst not paying much attention to the causes.

Identifying ‘families’ as the site for interventions has also come in for some criticism  in recent times, mainly around issues such as individual agency, normative assumptions about what constitutes a ‘family’ and the pathologising of entire families. A Cabinet Office review of ‘whole family’ approaches stated that:

Whole family approaches to the consequences of social exclusion present tensions and opportunities. Evidence in this review indicates that it cannot be assumed that whole family approaches are appropriate or useful for all families or for all needs. Whole family approaches do not necessarily address the needs of some individuals or ensure that family life is robust and promotes wellbeing.

The report, commissioned by the previous government, also assumes ‘that the experiences of poverty and economic disadvantage run throughout this review , and are core to any consideration of the needs of families with multiple and enduring difficulties’ and that ‘this context is therefore assumed to be integral to any review of families’ experiences and needs’.

Unfortunately, in this instance, it appears that dealing with underlying issues of poverty and inequality are not core but peripheral to considerations about how to improve the lives of these families.

In summary then, a few more concerns about the direction of the Troubled Families agenda can been raised:

  1.  it has been argued that the concept of a group of ‘problem families’ is ‘intellectually incoherent and unsupported by sound scientific evidence’
  2. the current policy focus is explicity about rewarding behaviour change in the short term and not about addressing underlying causes of poverty and disadvantage
  3. Concerns have been raised about the appropriateness of ‘whole family’ approaches to a wide range of individual and/or family issues

Our first post on Troubled Families focused on inconsistencies and conflicts surrounding the definition and criteria of what a ‘troubled family’ looked like. This second post has highlighted some issues surrounding the policy direction being pursued by the Coalition Government. A third, and final, post will explore the ‘chicken and egg’  discourse between this agenda and the wider child poverty agenda. i.e. which came first, poverty or problems?

As ever, your comments on the post would be very welcome.

Best wishes,


The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 1) can be found here

The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 2) can be found here

4 responses to “The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 2)

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