The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 3)

“Turning round the lives of these families is a core element of our strategy”

On page 39 of the government’s child poverty strategy, the above line can be found in relation to the ‘120,000 families in England with multiple problems.

This is consistent with the ‘new’ approach to tackling poverty in identifying familial issues and ‘problems’ as the ’causes and drivers’ of disadvantage and focussing on the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged. This post explores why it is problematic that the troubled families agenda has become a ‘core element’ – both implicitly and explicitly – of the ‘new approach’ to tackling child poverty.

In our first post on this subject, we identified that these 120,000 families were identified back in 2004. (See Ruth Levitas’ working paper on ‘troubled’ families for a fuller critique of the problems with the identification of 120,000 such families). In 2004, there were 2,800,000 children living in households with less than 60% of the median income. That means that, unless the 120,000 families identified in the same year all have lots of children (and there’s no evidence that they have) they probably account for a relatively small percentage of families with children living in poverty. If the composition of each family mirrored the household composition of children living in households in poverty then this would still only account for around 11% of children living in poverty (a very approximate figure). This is, of course, far lower than the 55% of children in poverty living in households where someone is working, for example. It is also worth noting that whilst the government assumes that the number of ‘troubled families’ has remained static since 2004, research on poverty dynamics carried out by JRF in 2007 highlighted that ‘Point-in-time studies underestimate the scale of poverty in the UK’ and so the percentage of families in poverty or at risk of poverty who have multiple problems is probably much lower than 11%.

Also, in many cases with these families, and because of the criteria, work may not be the best or most appropriate solution for them. The lives of families where there are  maternal mental health problems and/or ‘a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity’ may not be ‘turned around’ by the introduction of (probably low paid) work into their lives.

This situation wouldn’t be as ‘troubling’ if the definition and portrayal of ‘troubled families’ had remained close the original criteria of having 5 of 7 specific disadvantages. These are:

  • No parent in the family is in work;
  • Family lives in overcrowded housing;
  • No parent has any qualifications;
  • Mother has mental health problems;
  • At least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity;
  • Family has low income (below 60 per cent of median income);
  • Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.

Concerns arise through the conflation of these ‘problems’ with problem behaviours as we have discussed before.  The government consistently identifies ‘the family’ as the appropriate place for ‘intervention’. Section headings on ‘Reducing the impact of family breakdowns’, ‘Improving parent’s learning and skills’ and ‘We are supporting strong parenting’ all identify family troubles as issues that require intervention if poverty is to be addressed. In this narrative, the sources of poverty are problems within a household and the ‘most disadvantaged’ are those families with the most problems.

In the child poverty strategy, the criteria above is included as a footnote. The second paragraph in the section ‘Supporting families with multiple problems’ notes that ‘The Prime Minister has appointed Emma Harrison, an entrepreneur who specialises in getting jobseekers into work, to lead part of the work to support families with multiple problems’. This work was called ‘Working Families Everywhere’ and was focused on the 100,000 ‘never worked’ families, as Harrison called them. So the 120,000 families are, in the child poverty strategy,  instantly associated with families that have never worked. They have also been linked, by David Cameron, with the riots last summer and the government’s quest for social justice. ‘Problem behaviours’ among people on low incomes have also been identified by Iain Duncan Smith on a number of occasions to justify the new approach to tackling child poverty:

Take a family headed by a drug addict or someone with a gambling addiction – increase the parent’s income and the chances are they will spend the money on furthering their habit, not on their children.

(2011 Families and young people in troubled neighbourhoods speech at the LSE)

Ask yourself this: what happens to the children of a drug addict if you increase their welfare payments? Is their family really pulled out of poverty? When you measure the effect on real life outcomes, the extra money may actually have made things worse. You have failed to tackle the root cause of the problem – the damaging addiction. As the extra money is spent on drugs, so the dependent family continues to live in poverty, for unless something changes in the adult’s life, nothing changes for the child.

(2011 Keith Joseph Lecture)

The constant linking of poverty and ‘problem’ behaviours is not accidental. If turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families is a core element of tackling child poverty, one can only assume that the other families living in poverty also behave in similarly problematic ways, but perhaps not to the same extent. Of course, there is nothing ‘new’ about this ‘behaviourism’ approach as John Veit-Wilson noted in 2000:

Poverty is expressed in the form of unacceptable behaviours deviating from the ‘respectable’ behavioural norms of dominant society or as dysfunctional to standards of conformity, for instance as the deprived or depraved lifestyle of a subculture or ‘underclass’. The inadequacy of people’s power over resources is seen as irrelevant to the question of how they behave.

Best wishes,


***The Troubled Families agenda was covered by Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ programme a couple of weeks ago where Professor Ruth Levitas highlighted some of the issues with the approach and, in lieu of a spokesman, a statement from the government was also interviewed. It is well worth a listen if you have 10 minutes or so and can be found here***

The trouble with troubled families (Part 1) can be found here

The trouble with troubled families (Part 2) can be found here

3 responses to “The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 3)

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