(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families Working Paper


I’ve spent a little bit of time tidying up my (Mis)Understanding Troubled Families blog posts from a couple of weeks ago and have put together a short Working Paper on the Understanding Troubled Families report and the data accompanying it.

The  Working Paper highlights three issues relating to the report which should be of concern:

  1. The quality of the data behind the report
  2. The misrepresentation of the data in the report
  3. The uses of the report and data

The report is available by clicking on the image above or here

Please feel free to use it and/or circulate it widely, that’s what it’s there for.



****UPDATE 21 October 2014. It would appear that I’ve misunderstood some of the data relating to the Understanding Troubled Families report that the Working Paper is based on. I thought the in-work/out-of-work figures related only to the time of a families’ entry to the programme. It turns out that the figures relate to any time during the 6 months prior to entry into the programme. I have updated the Working Paper to reflect this new timescale and the version available in the links above is the newer version(v2). My original concerns about the presentation of the data still largely stand. Apologies for the unintended misunderstanding****


(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 4)

Symbolic violence, to put it as tersely and simply as possible, is the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity (Bourdieu, 1992: 167)

The social world can be uttered and constructed in different ways: it can be practically perceived, uttered, constructed, in accordance with different principles of vision and division (Bourdieu, 1992: 232)

 ‘What’s missing is love’ declared Louise Casey to The Guardian when she was interviewed last year. The article also recounts a message that Casey gave her audience at a conference on the day of the interview: ‘Remember the humanity in it. Forget which agency you are from and remember the human being’

At the end of her Listening to Troubled Families report, Casey writes:

And finally I’d like to thank the families.  I am indebted to them for their openness in recounting to me often painful and distressing details of their personal histories and wish them every success as they continue on the road to changing their lives.

The title of the report is significant. Casey may well have listened to the families she interviewed, but in publishing the report, she was also talking about them, telling their stories in a very particular way which has been criticised for the stigmatising representation of the families and the absence of any ethical procedures. Ruth Levitas wrote that  

Doubtless families with backgrounds and circumstances as difficult as Casey documents exist – although there might be quite other ways of telling their stories than in the narratives presented here.

Interestingly – and I digress a little here, it would appear that Casey has some form in this kind of ‘research’. The quote below is from a blog about a meeting with Casey when she headed up the ASB Unit

I’ve only met Louise Casey the one time. She came to speak to me in 2008 as part of a consultation exercise for what became her report, Engaging Communities in Fighting CrimeShe sat politely. Smiled at the appropriate moments. Paid no attention to anything I said and wrote a report short on evidence and long on ideology and gut prejudice.

Back to the present – the Listening report is a good example of the labour of representation that Casey and the government are involved with and the Understanding Troubled Families report is another good example. The Listening report provides narratives from the families, their own true stories, sympathetically collected and received by a down-to-earth civil servant. The Understanding report provides the hard data and the numbers which ‘proves’ the extent of these families ‘problems’.  I have tried to show with this blog series how the latter report, far from seeking to ‘understand’ troubled families, actively misrepresents them through interpretive speculations of some very weak data.

In order to listen to someone or to attempt to understand them, you do not need to publish a report or produce some statistics. However, if you want to construct a narrative, tell a particular story, or create a class of people, then you do have to put pen to paper and communicate the concept to other people in a convincing way. Bourdieu argued that the main error in Marxism was treating classes on paper as if they were real classes. And this is exactly what the Troubled Families Programme set out to do – not with Marxist intentions though. 120,000 different families, many of whom have very different ‘problems’ to deal with, who are scattered across every local authority in England, are being pulled together on paper to form, in the words of The Sunday Times, ‘a new underclass’ – a threat to the normative values and aspirations of those ‘hard-working families’ that they are discursively set against.

This ‘class on paper’ is all the more powerfully perceived and (mis)recognised because it is an official class – constructed, authorized and guaranteed by the state. Bourdieu went on to suggest that:

The power of imposing a vision of divisions, that is the power of making visible and explicit social divisions that are implicit, is the political power par excellence: it is the power to make group, to manipulate the objective structure of society

Whilst the construction of ‘Troubled Families’ sets out to impose a vision of division, we should remember that it is an entirely arbitrary concept and, in effect, there is no such thing as ‘troubled families’, at least not in the sense of there being 120,000 of them. The group may exist on paper, they may exist in local authorities data systems, but they do not exist in the real world. ‘Troubled families’ have been constructed as an official social problem with no clear definition of what constitutes a ‘troubled family’ and no research or evidence worthy of the name to support the existence of such a group.  As such, it is not possible to ‘listen’ to ‘troubled families’, nor is it possible to ‘understand’ them. They are an imaginary group. All we are left with, then, is the telling of stories.

(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 3)

‘Words wreak havoc when they happen to name something that is experienced but has not yet been named’ (Sartre, 1987: 127)

‘Each society, at each moment, elaborates a body of social problems taken to be legitimate, worthy of being debated, of being made public and sometimes officialised and, in a sense, guaranteed by the state (Bourdieu, 1992: 236 original emphases)

‘Underclass’ is a symbolic term with no single meaning, but a great many applications … It represents, not a useful concept, but a potent symbol’ (Dean, 1991: 35)

Ideas similar to that of ‘troubled families’ have a long history, going back to at least the Victorian age when there were concerns about a social residuum. There have been numerous reconstructions of this idea since then, such as the social problem group, problem families, the underclass and the socially excluded. Many of these concepts have been criticised for their imprecise definitions and the general argument has been that members of these groups are easier to spot than they are to define.

I have written previously that ‘troubled families’ can be pretty much anything that local authorities want them to be, within reason. In an article in the Local Government Chronicle about the expansion of the Troubled Families Programme published yesterday, Louise Casey admitted as much, explaining that ‘I could have been criticised for drawing up narrow criteria. These are wide so that local authorities can reach those they think they need to’. The wide range of social ills associated with the label ‘troubled families’ and the use of local discretionary criteria mean that the concept operates as a sort of super social problem, encompassing a wide range of seemingly separate and sometimes unrelated problems from alcohol dependency to violent extremism. Kirk Mann described the use of the debate about the concept of ‘the underclass’ in the 1980s and early 1990s as suffering from a ‘generalised ‘catch all vagueness’, suggesting that specific policy responses to a wide range of problems was likely to fail and that ‘it may be inappropriate to subsume these disparate issues under the catch all heading of underclass behaviour’ (Mann, 1994: 85).

The Troubled Families Programme is, as we know, a specific policy response and the Understanding Troubled Families (UTF) report provides an opportunity to look at some of the characteristics of the families categorized as ‘troubled’. The official naming of ‘troubled families’ means, as Bourdieu pointed out, that the concept achieves a form of legitimacy through its ‘guarantee’ from the state. This has implications for families labelled as ‘troubled’ given the stigmatising and contemptuous language which is often used in the discourse surrounding them. Imogen Tyler has written powerfully how the ‘scum semiotics’ and ‘underclass consensus’ which surrounded the riots of 2011 were used to ‘procure consent’ for a political backlash against poor and marginalised families. The Troubled Families Programme, in its current format, emerged as a direct political response to the riots and continues to be linked with those events in the media.

I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, however, that many of the families do not correspond with the stereotypical ‘neighbours from hell’ image that was invoked by David Cameron when he launched the programme. In fact, the most common characteristics amongst the families involved with the programme appear to be that they are white, not in work, live in social housing and have a range of health and disability issues. Crime, anti-social behaviour and substance abuse all appear to be characteristics shared by a minority of families. Mann noted these contradictions and tensions in description of the underclass, noting that ‘they are nimble enough to burgle any home and can run off after a ‘bag-snatching’, but the disabled (sic) are also members of the underclass’ (Mann, 1994: 80).

Despite these contradictions, it is problematic behaviours such as crime, ASB, Domestic Violence and drug and alcohol abuse that have been used as justification for the national policy response to the problem and which members of the public most likely think of when they see the term ‘troubled’ or ‘problem’ families. Bourdieu wrote that ‘In the social world, words make things, because they make the meaning and consensus on the existence and meaning of things, the common sense, the doxa accepted by all as self-evident.’ It is, I would argue, self-evident what ‘troubled families’ is shorthand for.

The make-up of ‘troubled families, as reported in the UTF report, however, means that many families with long-standing and debilitating illnesses and/or what appear to be relatively minor crime and ASB issues may not be receiving the support and services that they need. Instead, they will receive a ‘hands on’ ‘challenging, assertive and persistent’ family intervention style approach designed to address high levels of ASB and which has been heralded as a phenomenal success in ‘turning round’ the lives of so many troubled families. This success is then used as justification for ‘rolling out’ this approach to a wider group of families with even more poorly defined ‘troubles’, whilst simultaneously cutting more specialist services. Casey has, for example, used the example of needing less Pupil Referral Units if fewer children are truanting. The logical conclusion to this example appears to be that as long as children are in school, they are officially not ‘troubled’ or ‘troublesome’. As long as they walk through the school gates every morning and aren’t committing crime and ASB, their lives – and those of all members of their family – have officially been ‘turned round’. They no longer fall into the category of ‘troubled family’. The simplicity of the classification of families as either ‘troubled’ or not stands in stark contrast to the complex, dynamic nature of most people’s lives, not least those actively targeted by the TFP.

In short, the official naming of ‘troubled families’ is a good example of words wreaking havoc. When David Cameron and Louise Casey talk to the media about ‘troubled families’, when civil servants publish official TFP documents, and when local authority workers process claims for payment-by results, the words used have an impact on those families labelled as ‘troubled’ and how they are treated by the state. This is true whether the topic is the alleged ‘intergenerational transmission of problems’ and parents ruining the lives of their children or the ‘success’ stories of families whose lives have been turned round and therefore no longer require state support.

(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 1) can be found here

(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 2) can be found here


(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 2)

‘These families are off the barometer in the number of problems they have. We are beginning to achieve a revolution in how you deal with the worst families in Britain – worst in that they have the worst problems. Frankly, they cause the most problems and, frankly, you wouldn’t want to live with them’ Louise Casey in The Daily Express, 18 August 2014

‘She (Casey) described the case of a mother of 10. “She was seen as an antisocial behaviour case,” she said. “The house was a tip … She said to the team, ‘I can’t keep on top of the recycling,’ and you thought: tell another mug that, but not me’ The Sunday Times, 17 August 2014

When David Cameron launched the Troubled Families Programme in the aftermath of the English riots of 2011, he embellished his speech with a ‘true story’ of one family where numerous state services had been involved, including the following:

“The police were called out to their home 58 times, including five arrests and 109 hours of police work … Two injunctions were issued against tenants. Neighbours kept complaining to the council about disruptive behaviour. Two children were subject to different sets of close supervision by youth offending teams. There was a summons for non-payment of council tax…and on and on it went.”

Since then, ‘troubled families’ have been linked with a wide variety of social problems including Domestic Violence, teenage pregnancy, children at risk and, wait for it, violent extremism, leading to the frequent labelling of them as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘chaotic’. The publication of the ‘Understanding Troubled Families’ report, according to Louise Casey, ‘paints a picture of families sinking under the weight of multiple problems’, which can then ‘spiral out of control’ if they remain unchecked.  The report claimed that, on average, nine serious ‘problems’ exist in any one family at any one time. ‘Problems’, as defined in the report, include having a child  with a statement of Special Educational Need and having a long-term limiting illness or disability.

Leaving the issue of what constitutes a problem aside (that will be covered in Part 3), serious concerns should exist about the quality of the data, which are not official statistics and which have been collected from local authorities – see Part 1 here. However, if we take a leap of faith and take the data at face value, the interpretation and representation of the data should also cause us some concern. One could argue that Casey has adopted something akin to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ in interpreting the data, seeking out the negative angles to the data, as the examples at the top of the blog and the clipping below from the Sunday Times front page suggest (clicking on the image should increase its size).


If, however, one adopts something approaching a ‘hermeneutics of faith’ in examining the data, a very different picture can begin to emerge. For example, in contrast to the workless ‘neighbours from hell’ who ruin not only their lives but the lives of their children and those living next to them and are a constant drain on resources, we can find the following from the data behind the report:

  • 84% of families had children who were not permanently excluded from school
  • 26% of families had at least one adult in work
  • 77% of families did not have any young people classified as ‘NEET’
  • 78% were not at risk of eviction for any reason
  • 71% of those living in rented accommodation were not in rent arrears
  • 88% of families had no children on a Child Protection Plan
  • 77% of children did not have any children identified as being children in need
  • 85% of families had no adults with a proven criminal offence in the previous 6 months
  • 97% of families had children with either 1 or no criminal offences in the previous 6 months
  • 58% of families had no police callouts in the previous 6 months
  • 95% of families had no family members identified as being Prolific and Priority Offenders (PPO)
  • 89% of families had no adult subject to an ASB intervention
  • 93% of families had no identified gang members in the family
  • 93% of families had no adults clinically diagnosed as being dependent on alcohol
  • 93% of families had no adults clinically diagnosed as being dependent on non-prescription drugs

Whilst these figures show that there are undoubtedly some problems within ‘troubled families’ what they also show is that the reality of the families might appear to be somewhat different to the stereotypical, stigmatising image of them put forward by politicians, civil servants and certain sections of the media. The example of a police officer stationed on a family’s settee being a cheaper option than responding to all of the call-outs is a familiar one and was used in the Sunday Time article, but the data shows that it is an entirely inappropriate one to illustrate the experience of the majority of the families being talked about as, for example, only 5% of families included individuals known to be priority and prolific offenders. We should also remember that the data relates to families entering the TF programme in its very earliest stages – presumably these were the families that most easily fitted the criteria and were the ones already best known to services. One might conclude that they may therefore have more ‘troubles’ than later entrants to the programme, a conclusion which could be supported by some local authorities claiming to be unable to find their allocated number of ‘troubled families’

An alternative reading of the data could therefore include the findings which show that the majority of these ‘troubled families’ have children who are not excluded from school, are able to care for and bring up their children without statutory intervention of any kind, are not in rent arrears and are involved in no – or very low levels of – crime and ASB. Over a quarter of the families were in work within 6 months of the time of entry to the programme despite Casey previously stating that “We have known that there is a group of families who didn’t work in the boom times and won’t work in the bust times. They’re unemployed; they’re dependent on benefits.” As the data suggests, many of them don’t match this description and because of the way the data has been collected and reported, we do not know (or are not told) how many of the families had an adult in work in the  7, 8, 9 or 12 or 24 months prior to entering the programme.(Please see update below) We do know, however, that people often churn in and out of insecure, low-paid jobs and that ‘in work’ or ‘out-of-work’ are not static, unchanging categories, despite the attempt here to portray them as such. The reason for individuals being out of work is not reported either. Given the health data, it would not be surprising if a large number of families had nobody in work because of limiting illness, disability or caring responsibilities. This sort of detail probably doesn’t help the ‘workshy’ image of the families that Casey is eager to cultivate.

In choosing to interpret and present the data at her disposal in this way, Casey is arguably guilty of what Thomas Teo, drawing on the work of Gayatri Spivak, has called ‘epistemological violence’. Teo suggests that:

“Epistemological violence is a practice that is executed … when interpretative speculations regarding results implicitly or explicitly construct the ‘Other’ as problematic. The term epistemological suggests that these speculations are framed as knowledge when in reality they are interpretative speculations regarding data. The term violence denotes that this ‘knowledge’ has a negative impact on the ‘Other’ and that the interpretative speculations are produced to the detriment of the ‘Other’.”

In highlighting the potential different readings of the family monitoring data provided by local authorities, we should not seek to deny that many ‘troubled families’ lead complex lives or that some families do cause trouble for other people. When a programme specifically and deliberately targets some of our poorest and most disadvantaged families, we shouldn’t be surprised when issues such as unemployment, domestic violence, crime, lone parenthood, educational problems and mental health issues can be found. After all, these issues occur across all cross-sections of society. What should, perhaps, be more noteworthy, given the difficulties they face and the conditions and stresses under which many of them live, is the fact that many of them appear to function reasonably well, and without succumbing to the ‘Shameless’ stereotype perpetuated by Casey and the right wing press.

Part 1 of (Mis)Understanding Troubled Families can be found here

****UPDATE 21 October 2014. It would appear that I’ve misunderstood some of the data relating to the Understanding Troubled Families report that the Working Paper is based on. I initially thought the in-work/out-of-work figures related only to the time of a families’ entry to the programme. It turns out that the ‘in-work’ figures relate toan adult member of the household being in employment at any time during the 6 months prior to entry into the programme. I have updated the blog to reflect this and hopefully the information above is correct. My original concerns about the presentation of the data still largely stand. Apologies for the unintended misunderstanding****

(Mis)Understanding Troubled Families (Part 1)

‘What is an official statistic?’ asked Paul Spicker when the Troubled Families Programme was launched, as he queried the number of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ and the alleged cost of services to these families. Spicker highlighted that these figures were not ‘official statistics’ and were therefore outside of the remit of the UK Statistics Authority, bu that their use by government ‘opens the door to the possibility that there will be two sorts of official statistics – the formal sort, which meet professional standards, and the others which don’t’ (p51).

The recent publication in July of the DCLG report Understanding Troubled Families and an accompanying ‘interim report’ of the evaluation of the programme provide the latest instalment of the ‘troubled families’ numbers game. Despite, Louise Casey writing in the foreword to the report that ‘These are statistics to be concerned about’ (p4) and telling the Sunday Times that ‘this is the first time we have been able to evidence the extent of the problems’ (emphases added), the ‘Family Monitoring Data’ which supports the report falls into the ‘unofficial’ statistics group, probably doesn’t deserve to be called ‘evidence’ and and doesn’t really meet any professional standards at all.

The data was collected by local authorities. We do know that although ‘local authorities were asked to randomly select the sample of families for monitoring purposes, it is not possible to be certain that families were chosen randomly in all cases’ (p9). As Declan Gaffney pointed out on Twitter, it should have been possible to provide a randomisation procedure to all local authorities to ensure some kind of consistency, but only some suggestions on how to provide a random sample were provided – see p4 of this.

It would appear from the interim evaluation report that local authority key workers provided the data via a standardised template.  However, the interim report also states that ‘some data submitted will be local authorities ‘best fit’ to data requested’, that there are ‘many different data collection systems in place, some of which were not capable of collecting sufficient data in time for this return in local authorities and that some local authorities are involved with ‘retrospective data gathering’ (p5, emphasis added). So far, not so good. The use of key workers to provide the data is also interesting, and not without complication. The indicators ‘combine both recognised standard measures and those which rely on practitioner intelligence’ (p4). In other words, a lot of the information submitted may not have been provided by families themselves or from information held about them by public bodies; some of the information has been provided based on workers perceptions of these families. Some of the indicators which rely on ‘practitioner intelligence’ include:

  • ‘Parenting difficulties’
  • Family members suffering from Domestic Violence or Domestic Abuse
  • Adults dependent on non-prescription drugs
  • Adults suffering mental health problems
  • Children suffering mental health problems
  • Adults dependent on alcohol
  • Adults with long-standing illness/disability
  • Children with long-standing illness/disability

(The last five of these bullet points are provided as an ‘alternative’ to a clinical diagnosis)

There are numerous reasons why the information provided in response to these indicators may not be particularly robust. No explanation is given as to what constitutes ‘parenting difficulties’, even in the guidance document sent to local authorities, so the information provided for this indicator is entirely subjective. There are good reasons why individuals or families may want to hide evidence of Domestic Violence or Abuse (a point which is recognised in the report) and quite how key workers with presumably little medical training can be expected to provide an assessment of mental health, illness/disability or a drug or alcohol dependency is not made clear. Again, there are good reasons why individuals or families may seek to hide this information from key workers, but there is also potential for some key workers to overstate the prevalence of these problems in these ‘troubled families’.

When David Cameron launched the programme he said he ‘wanted to be clear’ what he meant by the term ‘troubled families’. He went on to describe some of the issues they face: ‘Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations’ (emphasis added). Louise Casey has written in the Listening to Troubled Families report that ‘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. (p2 emphasis added)

So it is entirely possible that key workers are looking for issues which might not be there, or expecting to find them when they are working with ‘troubled families’ – their senses are heightened, if you like, and this is not a good way of collecting information. Interestingly, even when subjective submission are taken into account, the majority of families are not characterised by drug addiction, alcohol abuse, crime or Domestic Violence at all.

There are many other examples of why the data shouldn’t be trusted, and certainly isn’t worthy of presentation and discussion in official government documents. It would appear that at least 10 families were involved in the programme when they didn’t meet the criteria for being labelled as ‘troubled’ as they experienced 2 or less issues (the criteria for inclusion in the TF programme requires at least three criteria to be met). There are low completion rates (with a high number of ‘blank’ returns) for some indicators, with, for example, only two of the 16 possible health indicators receiving over 50% completion rates. One local authority provided entry data that was entered entirely in error which resulted in this information being excluded from the analysis. In a section of the interim evaluation report which explores the characteristics of the families, we find out that in 10% of cases, no information was provided regarding the number of children under the age of 5 in each family. We also find out that nearly 30% of responses regarding the families’ ethnicity were blank and a further 10% of responses to this indicator were in the ‘not known’ box. Finally, no information is provided on the local filter criteria used by local authorities in targeting ‘troubled families’ in their local areas, so the data could simply be a reflection of the characteristics of families that local authorities have decided to work with via the TF programme.

None of these issues highlighted above suggest a particularly sound method and nor do they provide much in the way of quality assurance. In short, the data provided probably shouldn’t have been published by the government in the way that it has been, and it certainly shouldn’t have been used as justification for the expansion of the programme. In the press release accompanying the report, Louise Casey said ‘this data also shows how big the challenge is and why we need to take this approach to a wider group of families with a wider set of problems as soon as we can’. As Ruth Levitas has pointed out previously in relation to the the monitoring and progress information provide by local authorities in the TF programme  ‘Neither the quality of these statistics, nor the political claims made for them, bear scrutiny’.

The ‘political claims’ or representation of the data is the subject of Part 2 of this series, to be published Tuesday 2nd September 2014.