The Troubled Families Programme

It does really feel like I plan policy announcements to support the learning in this module sometimes. Last week, I had the handy announcement of the Fairer Scotland Action plan that I blogged about a lot for you. This week I have the UK Government’s Troubled Families Programme (TFP). I will shout at you about this in Thursday’s lecture. At the moment, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee have made the relevant government department, the Department for Communities and Local Government, release a damning evaluation of the programme, finding that it made “no significant impact”.


There has already been so much excellent stuff written about the programme it is difficult to know where to focus this post for your learning. If you want to delve deeper – and the critical analyses of the TFP are the sort of stuff that is really useful for essay questions 1 and 3 – then Stephen Crossley and Michael Lambert’s work is an excellent start, such as this blog post.


In this post I want to focus on the issues of problem definition – I will also talk about this more in the lecture. I’ve already discussed how, when making social policy, government devise criteria of “deservingness” to say who should get the benefits of a policy, and who should not. One way of doing this is designating a problem population – saying X is an issue, therefore we should spend money sorting out X.


The TFP is a classic example of this, and of this going very wrong. The policy was launched in a wave of moral panic, after the riots in urban England in 2011. Now, Jonathan Portes, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, in this blog post, goes into a lot of detail about this, but basically the UK government very problematically plucked a figure of “150,000” families out of thin air for a speech by David Cameron, which then became a policy truth.

The policy also fitted into a wider discourse of “hard-working families” vs. some other “troubled families” – just like the Poor Laws distinguished between the deserving and underserving poor. Crossley and Lambert explore this from a historical and academic perspective in this paper. People, such as disabled people, are caught up in this discourse, becoming victims of policy and subject to benefit conditions (c.f. the Benefits Cap). It also leads to the ludicrous situation of people having their tax credits stopped because they are accused of living with Joseph Rowntree or R.S. McColl.


This is part of a wider discourse (i.e. policy language) that makes recipients abject or the subjects of social sitgma and disgust. The paper by Tyler and Jensen on the resource list explores this more.


So, why should we bother considering all this? Is this just lefty-moaning about policy? Morally, it is a fairly easy argument to make that people who are in dire conditions, through no fault of their own, should not be subject to such stigma and disgust. Practically, there is growing evidence that the knock-on costs of these policies in practice (from homelessness, poor health outcomes etc.) is greater than any savings to the benefits budget they produce. Further, practically, it leads to billions of pounds being wasted on a policy that could not work like the Troubled Families Programme.

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