Category Archives: Troubled families

Family Support and Child Poverty

Steve Crossley, freshly released from the burden of responsibility for this blog, has penned a readable report on the role of Family Support in addressing Child Poverty: ‘Family support’ and child poverty.

Based on a review of available evaluation evidence, Steve concludes that family support projects, while important for helping families, are NOT a way of tackling child poverty, because while they tackle some issues caused or exacerbated by poverty, but do not tackle the causes of that poverty.  He points out that the scale of resources invested in supporting families is dwarfed by the resources that are being taken away from families through welfare reform, cuts to public services and falling real wages.


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,


Dadlessness or factlessness?

Chris Goulden from JRF has written previously about ‘the relentless rise of in-work poverty’ and it’s a phrase we use a lot when presenting to people about some of the issues to be addressed when tackling poverty.

Another issue which has seen an interesting increase since the turn of the century, and especially of late, is the percentage of couples with children who are living in poverty. Table 4.6ts on page 125 of the latest HBAI release (clicking on the table below helps to view it better) shows that the % of ‘coupled’ families accounted for 71% of all families with children living in poverty with lone parents accounting for just 29% of families with children living in poverty. In 1999/2000 the percentage of coupled families living in poverty was 57% and stayed around the figure for the next five years or so, rising steadily since then, with big increases seen in each of the last two HBAI releases. On the other hand, the percentage of  children living in poverty with lone parents has dropped from a high of around 43% in 1999/2000 to a current level of around 29%, again with sharp movements (downwards this time) in each of the last two releases.


Now, I don’t want to engage in any ‘spontaenous sociology’ here so I’m not going to make any grand claims about why this is. I’m not denying that Britain has a relatively high level of relationship breakdown when compared with some other countries, as this report shows. Nor am I suggesting that couples living together suffer some kind of financial ‘penalty’ which needs to be addressed and I’m also aware that relationship status, like poverty, is dynamic and not a static classification. I just think it’s interesting and worthy of more attention, especially in light of narratives about ‘dysfunctional families’, ‘family breakdown’ and ‘dadlessness’ that we hear so often when ‘root causes’ of poverty are discussed.

For example, Samatha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice argued in The Times last week that ‘Strong families should lead the war on poverty’ and she noted that:

Almost a decade of research at the Centre for Social Justice has confirmed beyond doubt that family breakdown lies at the heart of today’s poverty and  inequality. Most people working in schools, hospitals and other frontline  jobs don’t need to crunch the numbers, however. (my emphasis)

It would appear that the CSJ themselves felt no need to ‘crunch the numbers’ as she puts it – or indeed look at them. In short, the figures suggest that factors beyond the ‘strength’ of the family might be worth concentrating on a little bit more. Christian Guy, the Director of CSJ recently admitted that they had ‘missed in-work poverty’, for example.

Eleanor Rathbone, in 1913, suggested that “it is hard for a woman to be an efficient housewife and parent while she is living under conditions of extreme poverty … The astonishing thing to us is not that so many women fail to grapple with the problem successfully but that any succeed”. We could perhaps paraphrase this to reflect a similar view of families – it shouldn’t surprise us if some families do split up under the weight of poverty, but what is more surprising is the very high number who stick together through these times.

This view, supported by some evidence, might help to develop a more positive narrative around the role of families, parenting and poverty.

Best wishes,



Intergenerational cultures of worklessness

A JRF report exploring the idea of ‘cultures of worklessness’ and whether they are passed down the generations was published today and it has already received a lot of press coverage and comment. The report was produced by researchers from Teesside and Glasgow Universities and involved fieldwork in some of the most deprived areas of Middlesbrough and Glasgow. The research, which found no evidence of ‘3 generations of worklessness’ within the same family, suggests that:

Policy-makers and politicians need to abandon theories – and resulting policies – that see worklessness as primarily the outcome of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations

I won’t say too much more about the content of the report because it makes sense to encourage people to read it themselves.

I do, however, want to highlight two things which I think are important about the report: the strength of the arguement within in and the importance of it.

The researchers are clear that they made every effort to find families that exhibited a ‘culture of worklessness’ and were very conscious that people would claim that they had not looked hard enough. Indeed, some of the comments on newsapaper websites that have covered the report would suggest that JRF might have been better off asking members of the public to identify such families. Drawing on work by Declan Gaffney (who has published a very interesting blog on the ‘invention of worklessness’ ), the report highlights ONS stats which suggest that approximately only 0.5% of workless households ‘could be described as having members across generations who have never worked’, as can be  seen from the infographic below.


In terms of the field work, no interviewees were able to direct the researchers to families that fitted the criteria for 3 generations of worklessnesss and, despite talking to and meeting over 30 practitioners working in the local areas:

none was able to direct us to potential recruits for the study … when pushed to identify families where ‘three generations had never worked’ these practitioners were unable to do so, despite their apparent belief in the existence of such families and their close engagement with local communities.

The approach of the researchers has not yet been challenged and organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice and Policy Exchange who have talked previously about deviant cultures have yet to respond to the report, to the best of my knowledge.

The second point I would like to make about the research is how important it is at the present time. The report contains quotes about worklessness from figures such as Chris Grayling, Gordon Brown and Dame Carol Black, and Iain Duncan Smith frequently uses examples of such behaviour in his speeches:

“And those who have no interest in work … because they have seen their parents, their neighbours and their entire community sit on benefits for life … have simply had their destructive lifestyle confirmed..”


“This entrenched culture of  worklessness and dependency is not only the source of soaring welfare bills”

Even the DWP Social Justice Strategy has a section on ‘challenging the culture of worklessness’ . The idea of cultures of worklessness has also permeated down to local authorities and their partners and here are a few examples that I have come across in the North East:

Research carried out in 2010 … revealed low aspiration levels in some areas of the borough, in many cases as a result of second and third generation family unemployment.

The cultures embedded in second or third generation workless households, including benefit dependency, need to be changed

… highlighted a number of areas of concern, including … the problems of cultures of low aspiration and worklessness in some of our communities,

We will work towards enabling people to break the cycle of benefit dependency; encouraging a culture of work in every household

It will be interesting to see what the response of politicians, policy makers and practitioners is to this report. Let’s keep our eyes and ears peeled for the next mention of 2, 3, 4 or even 5 (yes I have heard it) generations of unemployed. Of course, the best way of proving the existence of intergenerational cultures of worklessness is to find families that fit the bill. And yet, nobody has found any such families – and certainly not in large enough numbers to suggest it is a cultural phenomenon.

N.B. In the interests of full disclosure, two of the authors of the report are colleagues of mine. Professor Tracy Shildrick is a member of the North East Child Poverty Commission and Professor Rob Macdonald is a member of the Institute for Local Governance Management Committee, where I am based.


Ending child poverty: a child’s right or a parent’s responsibility?

This year the European Union will publish its Recommendation on Child Poverty. This is expected to be based on three ‘pillars’ – access to adequate resources, access to services and opportunities, and children’s participation – and to argue for a strong rights-based approach to eradicating child poverty. In 2011, the current coalition administration published the first government child poverty strategy in the UK. At its heart, lies a commitment to ‘strengthening families, encouraging responsibility, promoting work, guaranteeing fairness and providing support to the most vulnerable’. Tracy Shildrick and I explored these two very different approaches in an article for the current edition of the CPAG Poverty magazine.

The article can be found here

Other articles from the magazine can be found here


Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth

Yesterday the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a ‘leading think-tank’ (their description, not mine) published a report called ‘Rethinking Child Poverty’ and issued an accompanying press release calling on the government to ‘scrap flawed child poverty targets’.

Child Poverty Action Group and Channel 4’s Fact Check have already examined some of the assumptions and statistical work in the release and found it wanting, perhaps an example of the ‘educational failure’ that the CSJ mention as a cause of poverty. The CPAG report suggested that one of CSJ’s claims was ‘nonsense’ and could ‘only stem from a failure to understand the difference between the median income (the middle income) and the mean income (the average income)’ while the Factcheck blog suggests the report is ‘misleading’. Both of these responses are worth reading and I will not duplicate what they have covered.

Miles Corak, in a blog post, predicted what the criticisms of a UNICEF report released on the same day would be and his comments are also relevant to the CSJ report. He wrote that the response from critics would include:

Relative poverty rates are not poverty at all, they are measures of inequality, the critique continues, and as such can never be eliminated.

The CSJ wrote:

The first methodological flaw of the Government’s central measure of poverty is that it is defined in relative terms. The result of this is that the poor will always exist statistically, as it is inevitable that some in society will have less than others

Entirely predictable then. What is also unsurprising is the way that poverty is framed and this post concentrates on the language used in the press-release (and which is echoed throughout the report) which, once again, sets out to link poverty with individual or family ‘problems’ and behaviours. Here’s a few examples:

Poverty is about more than money – it is about the family breakdown, addiction, debt-traps, and failing schools that blight the lives of our children

the accent would be on measuring the underlying causes of blighted young lives, such as family breakdown, welfare dependency and educational failure, rather than the symptoms of low relative income

The ‘relative’ yardstick takes no account of the true, underlying causes of a deprived upbringing, for instance whether a child has the love and care of two parents, whether he or she has the role model of adults who go out to work for a living, or whether drug or alcohol addiction scars family life

Yet we know from our own extensive research as well as the research of others that the key drivers of poverty are family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency and worklessness, addiction and serious personal debt

Other factors that should be taken into account include the ability to save, the quality of a child’s parenting, family stability because children from broken homes are twice as likely to suffer behavioural problems than those from intact families, levels of worklessness in households because children tend to repeat the work habits of their parents, access to good schools, truancy rates, drug and alcohol addiction and levels of household debt

The press-release consistently ignores the potential for any kind of link between income and family circumstance, ignores the centrality of money in our society, portrays that society as largely benign and passive and lays the blame for child poverty at the door of the parents. No mention is made of political or societal responses to these examples of ‘social breakdown which fuel’ poverty. But if family breakdown is a driver of child poverty, why are poverty rates for lone parents different in different countries? Are differing levels of unemployment symptomatic of different cultures and attitudes to work, both regionally and internationally (and what about in-work poverty). Poverty is the result of political and economic decisions and there isn’t a great deal of ‘evidence’ worthy of the name that suggests otherwise. Anecdotes are not quite the same thing.

The ‘extensive’ evidence that they mention largely consists of their own work and government commissioned research. No academic publications feature in the report at all, which should be, but isn’t, surprising. The CSJ speak highly of their Alliance, a group of over 300 ‘grassroots poverty-fighting charities’ who tell them what life is like for people in poverty. Why not speak to the people themselves rather than relying on intermediaries? Academic research (including work that we’ve covered here by Kathy Hamilton and Chris Warburton-Brown) that has actually gone out and spoken to people on low-incomes has found that money, and more specifically a lack of it, plays a central role in people’s lives.

Regular readers will know that this is an issue that we cover quite frequently here and I’m beginning to get a bit sick of reading (and writing) about this stuff, but it is, as a colleague said to me, a ‘zombie arguement’: no matter how much you think you’ve killed it off, it keeps coming back to life and, unfortunately, it appears to be particularly resilient at the present time. But, as Franklin D. Roosevelt argued,a lie does not become a truth no matter how often it is repeated.

What is particularly worrying, in my mind, is the opportunity that this intervention, and others like it, presents to the government to discuss poverty in a different way and which legitimises the ‘new approach’. There have already been reports of a desire within the government to scrap the income related targets and the CPAG response notes that:

it is difficult not to regard many of the arguments advanced in the CSJ report as little more than a smokescreen to allow the government to claim to do ‘something’ about poverty without spending any money. If poverty is about income, self-evidently we need to bolster family incomes. But those who attack poverty measures (however poorly) provide cover for the coalition to keep cutting the incomes of poor families, while claiming to champion their cause

while over on the Conservative Home website, Jill Kirby from the Centre for Policy Studies (believers in freedom and responsibility) was writing:

Given the CSJ’s reputation for researching and analysing the causes of poverty and deprivation, its intervention in the debate should provide the coalition with a welcome opportunity to replace Labour’s narrow and self-defeating policy with a more authentic and constructive approach. It could also present the Prime Minister with a chance to reaffirm his commitment to tackling social problems by supporting and strengthening families.

Many of you will be aware that Iain Duncan Smith founded the Centre for Social Justice and that Christian Guy, the MD of CSJ, is his former speech writer. It is unlikely that this report came as a shock to the government. Interesting times lie ahead….



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

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