“I’m going to pretend I haven’t seen that”: child poverty and agnotology

The government released a consultation on the next child poverty strategy yesterday and, at the same time, published a 130 page ‘evidence review of the drivers of child poverty’ . A lot has already been written about the quality of the strategy document with Alan Milburn belatedly coming to life in his role as Chair of the independent commission tasked with holding the government to account on child poverty and calling it ‘beyond Whitehall farce’.

However, little has been written so far about the quality of the evidence review. At 130 pages, one might hope it would be fairly comprehensive. Indeed, it’s explicit purpose is to look at ‘the key factors that make it harder for some families to get out of poverty and the key factors that make some poor children more likely to become poor adults’ (p5). However, a decision to focus ‘on the 13 family and child characteristics identified by a preliminary informal evidence review as most important’ (p5) hints that all may not be what it seems.

Then, on page 12 of the review, we are informed of the full scope of the review:

This evidence review only considers individual and family characteristics and events associated with current and future poverty. It does not take account of the macroeconomic context, in terms of the number and quality of available jobs or the returns to qualifications. This review also does not examine the impact of the institutional framework (e.g. the current educational system) or culture of society. Nor does it consider the interaction between the benefits system and incentives to work, although this will obviously have a role in ensuring work pays. These factors are important as they may limit the extent to which individuals are able to improve their situations through their own agency and changes in these factors could affect the future stability of the associations reported (emphases added).

The authors may as well have stated that they have chosen (or been instructed) to ignore over a century’s worth of social scientific evidence on the causes of poverty in the UK. Tom Slater’s excellent article on ‘the myth of Broken Britain’ and the production of ignorance by politicians and think-tanks about poverty in the UK appears even more relevant today than it was when it was written, and it was certainly relevant then. The report effectively pretends not to know about or have seen some of the most important findings of some of the most significant research studies that have shaped and improved our understanding of poverty. In my previous job I produced a Working Paper looking at the use, misuse and occasional abuse of evidence in relation to poverty. Included in this paper is a reference to the work of Glennester et al who carried out a review of 100 years of poverty and policy for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In summarising the early studies of poverty by Rowntree and Booth, the authors conclude that:

Explanations we are familiar with today – unemployment generated by economic cycles, the changing needs of families over their life cycle and the rigidity of wages compared to changing family needs over a life time – were already formulated.

So why the ignorance on the part of the authors of the evidence review? Maybe they have been tasked with ‘finding’ only evidence that suits a certain policy direction – a case of ‘policy-based evidence making’ perhaps? Peter Townsend, perhaps the most influential researcher into poverty in the last 50 years, if not longer, understood only too well the potential for this to happen. He remarked that:

like other concepts, poverty can be given different meanings by professions, governments and bureaucracies. One of the tasks of the social scientist is to bring out how concepts tend to be the creatures of the arbitrary exercise of power; and to look beyond them to a more democratic representation of interests in the meanings they are given. (Townsend, P. 1993)

It would appear therefore that, despite talk in recent days of new ‘measures’ for child poverty being put on hold, we are still being treated to a narrative that, whilst not necessarily new, is still significantly different from what is widely known about the causes of poverty in the UK.


Glennester, H., Hills, J., Piachaud, D. & Webb, J. (2004) One hundred years of poverty and policy, York: JRF

Townsend, P. (1993) ‘Theoretical disputes about poverty’, in Townsend, P. The international analysis of poverty, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf

The ‘fallacy of theoryless practice’

The book that convinced me to apply to do a PhD was Social Work and Social Theory by Paul Michael Garrett. I was reminded of the book following the publication of Martin Narey’s ‘review’ of social work education yesterday. The government’s response to the report states that ‘Sir Martin argues that there is too much theory, not enough good practical experience’ although when I looked at the report the closest thing to this that I saw was one Director of Children’s Service stating ‘Universities have been allowed to provide too much theory, too much sociology and not enough about spotting things in a family which are wrong’. Concerns about ‘too much theory’ didn’t feature in any of the recommendations although the report did express concerns about a focus on ‘anti-oppressive practice’ elsewhere, again, without developing the point in any meaningful way.

The reason for the reminder was that in the Introduction to his book, Garrett, drawing on the work of Thompson (2010), deals very effectively with what he calls the ‘fallacy of theoryless practice’. Telling the story of a student called Angela who declared ‘theory won’t get you through the door’ (Garrett 2013 p1), Garrett argues that all social work is based on theory and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, quoting Gray and Webb (2009):

Social work practice is the bearer and articulation of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts. Even those who try to refute the value of theory by claiming that social work is just ‘good common sense’ are, in fact, articulating a distilled version of philosophical theories about common sense’ (p5)

Interestingly, Garrett also presents evidence that the desire to focus on ‘practical qualities’ is a recurring theme in the UK and he finds it ‘particularly insidious’ at the present time ‘during a period of so-called ‘austerity’ when the government is intent on cutting public services’ (Garrett 2013 p2). One of my favourite parts of the book – and one which seems relevant here – relates to a discussion of the importance of the work of Fraser and, separately, Bourdieu on misrecognition. Garrett argues that in relegating structural issues (you, know ‘theoretical’ stuff…) to a marginal role in social work, the state effectively absents itself and seeks to ‘disappear’. In doing so

The resolution of issues … is almost entirely displaced onto micro-encounters. In this way, such encounters become conceptually overburdened with expectation because they are exchanges lacking the capacity to eradicate and combat structurally generated (mis)recognition (2013 p182)

Or, as Macnicol put it in relation to the Family Service Units approach to working with the ‘problem families’ of the 1950s ‘the remedy of scrubbing floors and painting walls’ (1999 p91) will do little to stop the structural inequality that exists in our society. This inequality – along with the poverty that is increasingly prevalent today – has demonstrable social consequences which cannot be denied or ignored and certainly should not be trivialised as being not as important as a willingness to ‘roll your sleeves up’.


Garrett, P. (2013) Social Work and Social Theory: Making connections, Bristol: Policy Press

Gray, M. & Webb,S. (eds) (2009) Social work theories and methods, London: Sage

Macnicol, J. (1999) From ‘Problem Family’ to ‘Underclass’, 1945-95 in Fawcett, H. & Lowe, R. (eds) Welfare Policy in Britain: The Road from 1945, Basingstoke: Macmillan

Thompson, N. (2010) Theorizing social work practice, Houndmills: Basingstoke

Domestic Violence and the Troubled Families Programme

Violence appears in many cases to be endemic – not just domestic violence between parents but violence between siblings, between parent and child, outside the house and inside the house. Violence, verbal and physical abuse was described in an almost matter-of-fact way. (Listening to Troubled Families, Louise Casey 2012 p2)

Official documents relating to the ‘Troubled Families Programme’ tend, in my opinion, to ‘marginalise’ the issue of Domestic Violence. The ‘fiscal case’ for working with ‘troubled families’ barely mentions Domestic Violence and an estimate of the ‘spending’ on Domestic Violence is not provided. The report does note that around 24% of families identified as being in receipt of family interventions in a previous scheme presented with DV as a problem (p29).

The national criteria for being identified as a ‘troubled family’ also excludes Domestic Violence, but does include ASB/Crime, educational non-attendance/exclusion and worklessness. Families that meet two out of these three criteria can also be identified as a ‘troubled family’ if they meet ‘local filter criteria’ as decided by the local authority and where the criteria represents a ‘high cost issue’ in the local area.  In guidance issued to local authorities in October 2013 in an FAQ format, the Troubled Families Team in DCLG stated that Domestic Violence might count as ASB in some cases, but not all and that “Where domestic violence is a high cost issue in your area, it remains an appropriate local criterion

The guidance goes on to state that

It will be down to you to measure your success against your local criteria, providing your internal auditors are satisfied that you can evidence the families’ eligibility for the programme. Payment of results will not be contingent on your success against local discretionary criteria (and nor will your success attract further results payments). However this is the kind of really useful information we may want to pick up as part of the national evaluation. As all local discretionary criteria should be high cost factors, the reward for addressing these issues should come in the form of local cost savings. (my emphases).

The Payment By Results (PBR) basis which the Troubled Families Programme operates on, rewards local authorities when certain outcomes such as increased attendance, reduced Crime/ASB and progression into work have been achieved over a time period of 6 months. Domestic Violence is mentioned only once, in the Introduction, to the ‘Financial Framework of the TFP.Louise Casey has previously said that ‘publishing criteria and payment by results are really important to give momentum to the programme and to be really clear what it is we are trying to achieve’ and she has also said

The liberating thing about payment by results is that it makes absolutely clear that you are looking for definite change in the family, leaving aside whether it incentivises my colleagues because of the money. Maybe, maybe not. You can answer that. My view is that it does, because people have moved quickly to identify their families and ask for attachment fees towards families, and we are gearing up to results in July. That is great. Another factor is that it makes the transaction between ourselves and what we are trying to do with the family clear. Instead of paying for lots of people to go and chat with families about how things are and whether things will change, there is a real simplicity, which is, “Are your kids in school all day, every day at normal attendance rates? I am sure you want that. How can I help get you over the line to achieve it?” For me, there are two reasons why this works. One is that it does incentivise people. The other is that it gives real clarity. *(my emphasis)

So, judging by the PBR criteria, we should be ‘absolutely clear’ that the TFP is about getting children back into school, reducing ASB and reducing worklessess. There is, however, a certain disconnect between the ‘invisibility’ of Domestic Violence in the ‘operationalisation’ of the TFP and Louise Casey’s emphasis on the prevalence of DV within ‘troubled families’. In ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ she wrote:

The most striking common theme that families described was the history of sexual and physical abuse, often going back generations; the involvement of the care system in the lives of both parents and their children, parents having children very young, those parents being involved in violent relationships, and the children going on to have behavioural problems, leading to exclusion from school, anti-social behaviour and crime (p1)

In the report, ‘violent or violence’ is mentioned 92 times, ‘abuse, abused or abusive’ is mentioned 79 times whereas ‘crime or criminal’ is mentioned just 11 times, ‘antisocial behaviour’ is mentioned 5 times, ‘exclusion or excluded’ (in a school context) is mentioned 4 times and ‘truant or truancy’ is mentioned twice. These numbers, coupled with other comments that Casey has made in a number of different contexts suggest that she views Domestic Violence as a major issue in the lives of ‘troubled families’ and something that should be addressed.

However, there have been some concerns raised around the appropriateness of ‘whole family’ approaches, which the TFP advocates, for families where violence and/or abuse is an issue. A review of the literature of ‘whole family approaches’ in 2007 stated

‘Whole Family’ concepts in relation to domestic abuse are contested among mainstream domestic violence agencies in the UK. They can be seen to imply working with the perpetrator of abuse within the family unit. Any discourse around interventions in families that have suffered/are suffering domestic violence needs to be aware of this tension. Family-based approaches face criticism within the UK – conceptually and practically they are seen as being of limited value

Similarly, some of the language used in relation to the practical and assertive approach required of ‘family workers’ is also not entirely in keeping with dealing sensitively with issues of violence and abuse. An example of this is something that Casey herself said in March 2013:

If we work together and get this right, it’s also a chance to make a cultural shift in the way services are delivered by professionals – an approach that is about a lead worker gripping a family as a whole and getting to the root causes of their problems

She has also said

What we know works is this thing called family intervention and what it does is basically get into the actual family, in their front room and if actually the kids aren’t in school it gets in there and says to the parents I’m gonna show you and explain to you exactly how to get your kids up and out every single day and then I’m gonna make you do it. And if you don’t do it, there are gonna be consequences. So it’s quite tough, but it’s also incredibly caring. (my emphasis)

Fathers and/or partners are largely invisible in discussions about ‘troubled families’ and, when they are present, they are often portrayed as unreliable at best and violent and abusive at worst. In this way, the focus turns to the role of the mother in ‘turning round’ the family. It should, however, also be noted that evaluations of previous FIPs suggest that 65% of families presenting with DV issues see a reduction or cessation in these issues at the point at which they leave the programme – the highest success rate of any ‘risk factors’ within families.

So, in regards to addressing the problem of Domestic Violence in ‘troubled families’, there appears to be a very real disconnect between the ‘official’ categorisation of a ‘troubled family’, the ‘unofficial’ (yet still ‘official’ as it comes from, amongst others, the senior civil servant  in charge of the programme) public discourse that is used to portray them and the approach advocated for working with ‘whole families’. Portraying ‘troubled families’ as domestic abusers and prone to violence is, of course, likely to help gain consent for policies and resources to address this behaviour. Being ‘tough’ with ‘troublesome’ families is also likely to prove popular, although its suitability for working with families where abuse and violence exist is questionable at best.

There are, I think, three main things that strike me about all of these inconsistencies. Firstly, if you want to ‘procure consent for a political backlash against Britains poor’ as Imogen Tyler has put it brilliantly here, you portray them as women-beaters and child abusers.  Stan Cohen, in Folk Devils and Moral Panics stated that

exaggeration and negative symbolization provided the immediate legitimation: if one is dealing with a group which is vicious, destructive, causing the community a financial loss and repudiating its cherished values, then one is justified in responding punitively (2002: 67)

Secondly, the explicit statement from the Troubled Families Team that Domestic Violence is an ‘appropriate’ local criteria ‘Where (it) is a high cost issue in your area’ is, in my view, one of the clearest indications yet that this programme is not about ‘turning around’ the lives of individual families but it is all about reducing a perceived ‘burden’ on the taxpayer.

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, the message may be given that Domestic Violence is a ‘personal trouble’ and marginalised as an area of concern, unless there is a sufficient amount in a local authority area to make it a (high-cost) ‘public issue’.

I am very interested in what other people think about the portrayal of Domestic Violence within the Troubled Families Programme. I am not an expert on Domestic Violence policy at all and have very limited knowledge of this are so would really appreciate any thoughts or comments on this blog – either via the comments box below or via e-mail at s.j.crossley@durham.ac.uk . I found this recent – and free access – paper by Westmarland and Kelly really helpful when I read it and suggested to me that some of the concerns I outlined above are not unique to the TFP. *These quotes are taken from uncorrected transcripts of oral evidence to select committees.