Learning to be poor? Poverty and the Troubled Families Programme
Last month the government published the latest Households Below Average Income (HBAI) statistics, which showed that around 4.1 million children are living in relative poverty. These figures did not receive much coverage in the national press and although the government did acknowledge the figures this year, the requirement to report annual child poverty figures to parliament for scrutiny was removed in 2016, when large parts of the Child Poverty Act (2016) were rescinded.
Progress on the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) was reported to parliament, however, and the government announced that over 170,000 families had made ‘significant and sustained progress’ as a result of their engagement with the programme. The government also published findings from the evaluation of the second phase of the TFP which appeared, at first sight, to be a case of ‘good things come to those who wait’. The second phase of the programme had apparently: reduced the proportion of children on the programme going into care by a third; reduced the proportion of adults on the programme going to prison by a quarter and juvenile convictions by 15%; and supported more people on the programme back in work with 10% fewer people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. But looking at the evaluation reports themselves tells a rather different story.
The focus on the very small numbers of children being taken into care diverts attention from the findings that the programme appeared to have no impact on the proportion of children identified as being ‘in need’, who represent a far greater number of the children involved with the programme. And the mention of people moving into work and off jobseeker’s allowance neglects to mention the ‘note of caution’ (p40) sounded in the outcomes report, especially given concerns around the potential that people may simply be moving to universal credit. The evaluators state that ‘overall … the programme is having no or limited impact on individuals claiming out-of-work benefits’ and there is ‘no difference between the programme and comparison group for employment outcomes’.
There are also some significant omissions from the various evaluation reports published last week. We don’t know the impact of the programme on health issues within the families, or the impact on domestic violence, despite these being two of the new criteria for being labelled a ‘troubled family’ in the second phase of the programme. The lack of any impact from the programme on education attendance (never mind attainment) is glossed over. We learn nothing of the ways in which various welfare reforms, which have affected the most disadvantaged families in numerous ways, have affected the lives of families on the TFP.
But perhaps the most damning omission is the word ‘poverty’, which is never mentioned in any of the 580 pages of evaluation documents, and only once in the annual review of the programme that was presented to parliament. Poverty is discussed in a case study of a family in the annual review, where four children were sharing a bed as a result of their poverty. Recycled furniture was provided to the family and according to the report ‘the worker gave ongoing support to Mum to help her manage her finances better’ (p25) while she also got support from Citizens Advice and Jobcentre Plus. In his book The Road to Wigan Pier, an account of working-class life in the north of England during the 1930s, George Orwell recounts the story of someone who held strong views on the issue of providing poor families with advice about their spending habits:
In London, he said, parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping lessons to the wives of the unemployed. He gave this as an example of the mentality of the governing class. First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money.
One might think on reading the evaluation documents that poverty was therefore a peripheral issue to many of the families on the TFP, or an issue that could be dealt with through some ‘financial awareness’ sessions, or similar. However, the annual review also states (on p16) that a family survey established that around two-thirds of the families on the programme ‘have a net household income below £12,500’. This is well below the poverty line for any family with children, but the report on family outcomes also states that ‘families on the programme were typically larger, contained more dependent children, were more likely to have a lone parent and have a child aged under-five than families in the general population’ (p16). This means that many of the families on the TFP will have been living in severe poverty, yet poverty and its harmful impacts is barely acknowledged in discussions of the programme.
William Ryan wrote about the impact of the concept of ‘culture of poverty’, which emerged in the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, on policy responses to poverty. His words in Blaming the Victim still have relevance today in considering the approach of the UK government to so-called ‘troubled families’:
If poverty is to be understood more clearly in terms of the “way of life” of the poor, in terms of a “lower class culture” as a product of a deviant value system, then money is clearly not the answer. We can stop right now worrying about ways of redistributing resources more equitably, and begin focusing our concern where it belongs – on the poor themselves. We can start trying to figure out how to change that troublesome culture of theirs, how to apply some tautening astringent to their flabby consciences, how to deal with their poor manners and make them more socially acceptable (Ryan, 1971: 118).
Addressing poverty or material deprivation has never been an intended outcome of the TFP. While one of its key aims has been to get people off ‘out of work benefits’ and ‘into continuous employment’, no consideration has ever been given to the potentially damaging consequences of poorly paid, insecure employment. With 70% of children in poverty now living in a working family, this is a shameful approach. As is lecturing impoverished women about how to spend an inadequate income more effectively. The ambition of the government, then, far from being to ‘turn around’ the lives of the most ‘troubled families’, or wanting them to make ‘significant and sustained progress’ amounts to little more, as Ryan might say, than teaching them how to be poor.