Troubled Families: a ‘super’ ‘social problem’?

Last week, Simon Hughes, the Justice Minister suggested that families who repeatedly appeared in the family courts would, in the future, be helped by the government’s Troubled Families Programme. This is the latest in a long line of ‘presenting problems’ linked with ‘troubled families’ and is entirely consistent with Macnicol’s view that

‘it is necessary for proponents of the underclass concept to lump together a wide variety of diverse human conditions (in order to make the problem appear significant), yet attribute to them a single cause (so that it appears a problem amenable to solution)’ (Macnicol, 1987: 315).

So far, we have seen ‘troubled families’ associated with a remarkably long list of ‘troubles’. To add to the three national criteria of Crime/ASB, educational truancy or exclusion and worklessness, local authorities are invited to add local filter criteria which can be whatever they choose, as long as it represents a high cost to the public purse. A number of local authorities have identified issues such as child protection and/or domestic violence whilst some have also included slightly different – and disparate – criteria such as: living in a deprived neighbourhood; having a parent with a long-term limiting illness or disability; not taking up the offer of free childcare for two-year-olds or; having ‘low parental capacity’.

Louise Casey, in her Listening to Troubled Families report helpfully listed the problems that were ‘revealed’ by her interviews with 16 families:

  • Intergenerational transmission
  • Large numbers of children
  • Shifting family make-up
  • Dysfunctional relationships
  • The anti-social family and friends network
  • Abuse
  • Institutional care
  • Teenage mothers
  • Violence
  • Early signs of poor behaviour
  • School
  • Anti-social behaviour
  • Mental health – depression
  • Drugs and alcohol

As if these three national criteria, unlimited local criteria and 12 familial issues aren’t enough, other government publications and individuals have sought to extend and ‘diversify’ the potential impact of the Troubled Families Unit. In the aftermath of the riots of 2011, the government published a report on Ending gang and youth violence stating that the work of the Troubled Families Unit would be ‘crucial’ in reducing involvement in violent crime and disorder. No mention of gang membership in any national criteria or Casey’s report.

James Brokenshire, the Security Minister has stated that he is ‘keen to ensure that the Government’s work to support troubled families is aligned to our work to support vulnerable individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorist activity’. This concern has been operationalized by at least one local authority who have included a local criteria of ‘Family member is believed to have been influenced by violent extremism.’ Again, no mention of extremist activity in national criteria or Casey’s report.

This ‘lumping together’ (or ‘pathological concentration’ as Garland called it) of a number of different ‘social problems’ under the banner of ‘troubled families’ is akin to the development of some kind of ‘super social problem’. The label of ‘troubled family’ therefore becomes an official hook on which to hang whichever social problem is in the news at the time. But the diversity of criteria demonstrate that it is disingenuous to think of a homogenous group of ‘troubled families’ and even more absurd to think that a single policy response can ‘turn round’ the lives of all of the families being discussed. Does a family with a parent with a long term limiting illness require the same sort of ‘family intervention’ as a family with a member involved in extremist or gang-related activity? Where is the evidence base for ‘family intervention’ reducing extremism? By hanging everything on the ‘troubled families’ hook, ministers, like Hughes, feel able to justify cuts to services in other areas. Who needs a comprehensive range of public services when a single ‘family intervention’ model can ‘deliver’ across a number of different family and social policy areas….


Garland, D. (2002). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Macnicol, J. (1987) In pursuit of the underclass, Journal of Social Policy, 16 (3), 293-318

Many thanks to Debbie Key, David McKendrick and @FearlessJones for information provided for this post.

Gender constructions in the ‘troubled families’ narrative

Yesterday, I gave a short paper at the National Deviancy Conference at Teesside University. The paper explored the gendered constructions within the ‘troubled families’ narrative and the slides from the PowerPoint can be accessed by clicking on the image below.

NDC slides

Basically, in the paper I try and develop the argument that ‘troubled families’, in many cases at least, equates to ‘troubled mothers’ who are unable to find and keep a ‘good’ man and who are therefore unable to either control their rowdy, anti-social children and/or care for their young vulnerable children. The state response to this feminized ‘social problem’ is, effectively a ‘macho’ form of social work where ‘persistent, challenging, assertive’ family workers ‘get stuck into’ families and ‘grip the whole family’. This physical (admittedly metaphorical but still symbolically powerful), forceful portrayal of state intervention is something I really struggle with, especially when large numbers of ‘troubled families’ are portrayed as suffering from Domestic Violence.

The Troubled Families Programme therefore provides, in my opinion, an excellent example of the ‘remasculinization of the state’ as Loic Wacquant has called the extension of penal powers combined with the simultaneous withdrawal of welfare provision and services. The political sleight of hand which saw ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as material deprivation, low income, poor housing etc switched with Crime/ASB,educational truancy or exclusion and worklessness as the defining characteristics of the 120,000 families is a particularly good example of this, but there are others within the ‘troubled families’ naarative.

I also think Bourdieu’s metaphor of the ‘left and right hands’ of the state has something to offer, especially when discussing political rhetoric which includes ‘gripping families’. Wacquant proposes an ‘ongoing arm-wrestle’ between the right hand, signifying the central state, concerned with financial and economic issues, and the left hand, the (usually locally delivered) social ministries of the state such as health, education, welfare.

One one level, I think the state intervention in ‘troubled families’ lives does amount to ‘gripping’ them: the TFP is, one could argue,concerned with social control, about holding the family where the state wants them and not letting individual members ‘escape’ to pursue their own, potentially deviant, paths. On another level, however, I think the aims of the TFP are more expansive than this and I think ‘squeezing’ may provide a more appropriate metaphor, primarily because squeezing is what often takes place when people are attempting to ‘extract’ something (juice, toothpaste etc) from an object. This is where the work of Bev Skeggs on ‘value’ is, well, of value and I think as the paper develops it will probably explore the value that can be extracted from families (via reduced costs to the state and parental involvement in low-paid work) and from state services (via a new efficient model of service delivery to a wider range of families which hinges on the skills and qualities of an individuals worker rather than adequately resourced professionals from different disciplines, which also allows a continued ignorance of structural conditions).

If anyone would like a copy of the paper when (alright, if) it gets finished, please let me know. But before that, if anyone has any comments, I’d be keen to hear them.

Best wishes,


*** In preparing the paper, I found the following article by Pat Starkey really helpful – and it also proves to me that what I am doing is nothing new, but then neither is what the government is doing. Starkey writes about the portrayal of ‘problem families’ in the 1950s and there are some telling similarities between then and the present day concern with ‘troubled families’ It’s free access I think so everyone should be able to read it, whether within an academic setting or not.***

Starkey, P. (2006) The feckless mother: women, poverty and social workers in wartime and post-war England

“Joining the dots”? The role of research in the ‘troubled families’ agenda

I’ve had an article published in Discover Society today which looks at how the troubled families agenda marginalises, ignores and ridicules social scientific contributions which offer different perspectives of the situations of the families or which criticise or ask questions of the policy approach to ‘troubled families’. The article can be found here.

Best wishes,