Flaws in the government’s troubled family strategy

Current government policy on social justice hinges on the claim that there are 120,000 ‘troubled’ families in Britain but this is deeply flawed, argues Professor Ruth Levitas in There may be ‘Trouble’ Ahead: What We Know About Those 120,000 ‘Troubled’ Families (PSE: UK, policy working paper 3). The government programme defines ‘troubled families’ as ‘characterised by there being no adult in the family working, children not being in school, and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour’. But the 120,000 figure derives from households experiencing multiple deprivations, with no evidence that they are involved in crime or anti-social behaviour. Levitas, a member of the PSE: UK research team, comments:

If we interrogate the research behind the imputed existence of 120,000 troubled families, this turns out to be a factoid – something that takes the form of a fact, but is not. It is used to support policies that in no way follow from the research on which the figure is based. The problem is not the research itself, but its misuse.

The Levitas paper documents the way the government has turned research into families with multiple disadvantages into an attack on this group, blaming these families for a wide range of social problems:

The new Social Justice Strategy focuses almost entirely upon this perceived group of ‘troubled’ families. Iain Duncan Smith declares on its opening page that ‘the Government recently identified a group of 120,000 troubled families whose lives are so chaotic they cost the Government some £9 billion in the last year alone’ … Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is reported as saying: ‘120,000 families are a big problem for this country. If you live near one you know very well who they are.’ … David Cameron’s speech on troubled families in December 2011 makes the same assumptions and assertions, although scarcely bothering to pause on the issue of families with troubles…

The original research on which these figures are based is a report for the Social Exclusion Task Force. The Task Force carried out some secondary analysis of the Family and Children Study (FACS), a longitudinal survey conducted by the National Centre for Social Research on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions. This analysis showed that in 2004 about two per cent of the families in the survey had five or more of seven characteristics, and were thus severely multiply disadvantaged. This two per cent of families generated an estimate that eight years ago there were 140,000 families in Britain, later recalculated as 120,000 in England, with multiple disadvantages. However, in the survey the actual numbers of families with five or more of these disadvantages was very small and the figure assumes an accuracy that is spurious:

It ignores both sampling error (the probable discrepancy between even a randomly generated sample and the population from which it is drawn) and sample bias (the departure from randomness of the effective sample, principally caused by differential response rates across the population). … The normal caution about sampling error, as opposed to bias, suggests ‘plus or minus 3 per cent’. On the face of it, this could take the actual figure down to minus 60,000 (which is of course nonsense: we know the figure is greater than zero, because some actual families were identified in FACS), or up as high as 300,000.

The original report, and the later fuller report on Families at Risk, suggested that these were the families that needed the most intensive intervention because of their multiple problems. The Department of Communities and Local Government, in promoting the government strategy, then makes a move from families that have troubles, through families that are ‘troubled’, to families that are or cause trouble. It is, they say, ‘unacceptable to leave the children in these families to lead the same disruptive and harmful lives as their parents’. Levitas comments:

As we have seen, ‘troubled families’ discursively collapses ‘families with troubles’ and ‘troublesome families’, while simultaneously implying that they are dysfunctional as families. This discursive strategy is successful in feeding vindictive attitudes to the poor.

See also:
Ruth Levitas was interviewed about this paper for BBC Radio 4’s More or Less. You can listen on BBC iplayer
Read the full PSE paper: There may be 'Trouble' Ahead: What We Know About Those 120,000 'Troubled' Families, by Ruth Levitas.
The government’s strategy Social Justice: Transforming Lives can be read on the Department for Work and Pensions website.
Families at Risk, the Social Exclusion Task Force report, can be read on the National Archives website.