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.

One thought on “Troubled Families: a ‘super’ ‘social problem’?

  1. Pingback: (Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 3) | A Kind of 'trouble'...

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