Arbitrary lines, short-term approaches and small statistical gains

Last week, the latest figures for ‘troubled families’ whose lives have been ‘turned round’ were released. The figures, showing that 14,000 families had been ‘turned round’ were accompanied by a press release, a written statement to parliament and various interviews where the achievements of the Troubled Families Programme were lauded. Eric Pickles suggested that progress had been ‘phenomenal’ and Louise Casey said

we are finally getting to grips with problems which may have persisted for generations, giving hope to people who have often been failed in the past and relief for the communities that suffered the effects of their behaviour.

The figures, the criteria for the payment-by-results framework and the hyperbolic language prompted me to revisit a couple of statements in the government’s child poverty strategy. Firstly, on p39 of the strategy it is stated that

It has been estimated that there are around 120,000 families in England with multiple problems. Turning round the lives of these families is a core element of our strategy. (original emphasis)

Secondly – and separately from this statement – the strategy criticises the previous government’s income based approach to tackling poverty thus:

… a fixation on moving families above an arbitrary line risks distorting public spending towards short-term approaches, which provide a small statistical gain, whilst failing to provide the life-transforming support that disadvantaged families need (p20)

So we can glean from these two statements that ‘turning round’ the lives of the ‘troubled families’ is central to tackling child poverty and that this government is not going to focus on ‘short-term approaches’ which might produce some nice statistics but fail to deliver long-term change.

However, none of the outcomes required under the Troubled Families Programme Financial Framework relate to tackling poverty directly. Local authorities can claim the central government funding if relevant crime/ASB/ educational attendance outcomes OR ‘continuous employment’ is found. We know that employment doesn’t always offer an income which lifts people out of poverty and it is unlikely that large numbers of adults in ‘troubled families’ will find secure, well paid employment in the current economic climate. In fact, nationally less than 5% of the families who had been ‘turned round’ found ‘continuous employment’.

The outcomes are measured over a 6 month period, after which, if either of them are achieved, the family will have been classed as ‘turned round’, central government will pay either £700 or £800 to the local authority and no further incentive to continue to work with these families. Why should it, if their lives have been ‘turned round’? In fact, if their lives take a turn for the worse, there will still be no incentive as the TFP will only pay out one per family – to achieve maximum value for money.

We know that people’s lives are complex and many more people move in and out of poverty than stay in poverty for a long time. Therefore the behaviourist focus and the relatively short-term approach (6 months) perhaps isn’t sufficiently deep enough or long enough to make claims about ‘turning lives around’. It may even ‘risk distorting public spending towards short-term approaches’. One could even call the outcomes required ‘abitrary lines’.

Many people will remember that Nick Clegg once criticised the previous government for a ‘poverty plus a pound’ approach and he stated that it ‘is simply not an ambitious enough goal’. We might deduce from the above that, if these families lives have been ‘turned round’ then tackling the poverty which is likely to affect many of them is simply not even a goal anymore.

***I am due to start a PhD in October looking at the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme. If any of you are interested, I have blogged about the TFP a couple of time recently on a blog set up for my PhD, including a longer post on the figures released last week.

Just to be clear, the views on my own blog are mine and not those of the North East Child Poverty Commission.***

Best wishes,

Steve

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