Engaging with 'troubled families' or grabbing headlines?

families, poverty, UK politics

Author(s):  Jenny Pennington
Published date:  23 Jul 2012
Source:  Public Service Europe

The United Kingdom government claims it is targeting 'troubled families', but attempts to catch the eye of the public and the media risk undermining the whole agenda - says think-tank

The publication this week of the British government's report Listening to troubled families represents a clear attempt to build political support for work with the most disadvantaged in society. In some regards, it is successful at doing this. However, by portraying disadvantaged families as dysfunctional and distinct from wider society it undermines the impact of work with this group. The report documents some of the personal histories of 'the kinds of families', who will be targeted by the government's pledge to deliver meaningful and lasting change to 120,000 'troubled families'. The experiences are shocking including sexual abuse, incest, teenage pregnancy and anti-social behavior among a small group of families. It unsurprisingly has dominated the news agenda.

While the stories documented are compelling, it is the fact that this is a clear attempt at building political support for work in this area that is most interesting. The research announced no new policy direction or substance, nor did it unveil an evidence base to inform policy development. Rather, the research is merely illustrative - designed to convince rather than advise. Although, this does not make this an unimportant piece of work - far from it. Families facing multiple disadvantages require intensive and expensive support and whether they are able to access this is highly dependent on whether their plight is able to secure political support. But what is important is that the political agenda built around these families ensures they can access the support they need.

The report goes someway to building such an agenda. It adds real stories to an area that has long been dominated by targets and statistics. It humanises the issue, taking the public beyond the numbers and allowing us to understand some of the problems that families face. Research carried out by the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank found that engaging with the public in a way that is meaningful for them is vital to building political support for action in this area. For example - while people may not be moved by the idea of living below an abstract poverty line, or an opaque reference to '120,000 problem families', they can grasp the concept of being homeless or a victim of domestic violence. The research has propelled this issue up the agenda and given real political space for action.

However, while all of this is engaging, it falls short of building the support needed for long term work with a range of families in need. The presentation of these extreme stories and the conclusions drawn from them emphasize the idea that disadvantaged people are distinct and different from wider society. It also characterises them as posing a threat; to their own family members through continuing generational disadvantage, a threat to their neighbours through involvement with crime and anti-social behaviour and most of all a threat to the taxpayer - through the £9bn in public spending that the report claims that these families are responsible for. The clear message is that these families are not just troubled but trouble.

In some sense, this political positioning is effective. It allows the government to engage with these issues without isolating their core support. It is also a message that appeals to many people, especially those whose lives are directly affected by anti-social behaviour. But it means that political support is built only for work with a narrow group of families. The research does not build as much support for work with families, who cause fewer problems to wider society but experience similar difficulties and are in need of intensive support. The impact of this is seen in the criteria that have been drawn up for families to qualify for intensive support. This focuses on those involved in crime and anti-social behaviour. As a result of its narrow focus on dysfunctional families, the programme may miss out some of the families who are most in need of support.

It also builds support for work that acts to 'contain' certain anti-social consequences of disadvantage rather than policies that address more material factors contributing to problems. This focus is seen clearly in the outcomes set by the government for work in this area: a reduction in offending rates, a reduction in anti-social behaviour, a reduced truanting or incidence of school exclusion and parents entering work or a work programme. All are important issues to address. Although key issues for these families that would enact real and sustainable change, such as securing adequate housing or support to stabilise a family's income while they prepare for work, are noticeably absent from this list. This week demonstrates the importance, but also the real difficulties facing those trying to build political support for disadvantaged groups. A political agenda for this work needs to be constructed sensitively to ensure that it does not simplify issues or vilify groups unnecessarily when this is to the detriment of the people it is trying to support.

Read more: http://www.publicserviceeurope.com/article/2247/engaging-with-troubled-families-or-grabbing-headlines#ixzz21Qn28kr8


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Jenny Pennington, Researcher