Louise Casey, the serial trouble-shooting Czarina, has managed to get huge publicity for a report which purports to “research” the issue of “troubled families”. And we’re not even into the Silly Season proper yet.
The first thing to note about all of this is that the policy “problem” and solutions were prescribed long-before this ‘research’ took place. The Prime Minister ascribed last summers riots, in part, to ’120,000 troubled families’ whose definition has shifted whilst the number has remained suspiciously stable (see a good analysis here). The 120,000 figure is again repeated in Casey’s report, without any evidence or definition.
Casey was appointed, at Director General level in DCLG, soon afterwards (Nov 2011) to head up the Troubled Families programme.
Let me be clear – I do believe there is an “under-class” of individuals and families (it’s not just families) who are “troubled” in the sense of being disconnected from society and engaged in various forms of anti-social behaviour. However defining this group, understanding the dynamics that created their individual issues and behaviours, and even more problematically deciding ‘what works’ in intervening is a complex social scientific and policy task. Moreover this ‘group’ (if it is a single, definable, group) shades into the wider categories of general poverty and disadvantage.
I can understand why an Austerity Government would rather focus on a small, seemingly ‘manageable’ set of ‘troubled families’ rather than deal with the bigger issues of inequality, poverty, disadvantage, etc. Just as they have sought to tarnish all benefit claimants with the notion of ‘benefit cheats’, so it’s useful to demonise ‘troubled families’.
Casey’s report is based on interviews with just 16 families, all of whom had accepted involvement with a Families Intervention Project, which of course immediately skews her “sample”.
A lot of her conclusions are crude versions of some of what has been known to social researchers for years. The one that has attracted most attention is the “inter-generational” nature of families problems.
That there are some families in which “cycles of disadvantage” have operated has been known about, researched and debated for at least 3 decades. Casey’s “research’ adds very little to this and what it does add is deeply methodologically flawed.
First, she only talks to families that have been in the ‘Families Intervention Programme’ (FIS) – but we are not told whether or not this fits the (absent) definition of “troubled families”.
Second, even these are all ‘troubled families’ then they are by definition a sub-set of ‘troubled families’, i.e. the ones who have accepted FIS. So even if you could generalise from such a small sample, it would only be about ‘FIS’ families.
Third, by not doing any comparative research with families with similar social and economic circumstances that are not ‘troubled’ it is impossible to tell which factors are causal of being ‘troubled’ and what ones are not.For example, she identifies “large numbers of children” as a factor, when even on her own evidence this applied to only half of her sample. But how many large families are not “troubled” and what about the 50% who didn’t have large families but were still “troubled”?
Similarly she mentions the age of the parents (i.e. young) when they had children – but there are many ‘young parent families’ that are not “troubled” – how many I have no idea, but neither does Casey.
Fourth, a starting point for any serious analysis like this is what in academia is usually called the “literature review”. I personally don’t like this phrase, because what it really is (or should be) mainly is a research and evidence review – what do we already know from research that has already been done? Don’t bother looking for this in Casey’s report – there’s nothing there.
I won’t go through all the other spurious generalisations and dubious conclusions in this report, it isn’t worth the effort right now (although I may use it for teaching purposes on “how not to do research or policy analysis”).
This is an almost pristine pure case of policy-based evidence. Casey starts out by saying she “wanted to get to know these families (i.e. “troubled” ones)”. If she, or anyone else, thinks we know anything more about so-called “troubled families” from this shoddy exercise they are sorely deluded. It seems, frankly, more designed to boost Casey’s credentials than to learn anything serious. As someone who’s bounced about from policy roles in homelessness, rough-sleepers, anti-social behaviour, “respect”, and victims she probably needs some credibility to demonstrate why she knows best about troubled-families. I very much doubt this quick “Cook’s Tour” of troubled families will earn her much respect however.