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Sociologist secures grant to investigate ‘120,000 troubled families’ statistic

Dr Matt Barnes will revisit his original research and ‘zombie statistic’

by Ed Grover (Senior Communications Officer)

A sociologist will revisit his own research on disadvantaged households after his results were used to support a UK Government scheme aimed at “troubled families”.

Dr Matt Barnes, a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at City University London, will investigate the validity of the Government’s claim that there are around 120,000 troubled households in the country.

Prime Minister David Cameron launched the Troubled Families programme in 2012 to “turn around” a small proportion of the population, which the Government said was linked to some of the largest problems in society.

However, Dr Barnes says the figure is a “zombie statistic” – one which is accepted as fact despite being the subject of dispute.

The academic, who produced the statistic when working in the Social Exclusion Task Force for the Cabinet Office, says those identified in the Government’s analysis may not necessarily be families responsible for criminal activity or anti-social behaviour.

He said: “The new evidence from the project will allow further discussion of the validity of government rhetoric and policy making based on the '120,000 troubled families' statistic, most notably its use in government calculations to allocate resources to policies to turn around trouble families.”

In 2007, the Cabinet Office published an evidence paper which identified that 2 per cent of families with children in England (around 120,000) had multiple disadvantages.

Four years later, the Government launched the Troubled Families programme following the 2011 UK riots which saw looting and arson in towns and cities across the country.

The new evidence from the project will allow further discussion of the validity of government rhetoric and policy making - Dr Matt Barnes

The £448 million scheme was created to help the identified households find work, become less dependent on benefits, improve school attendance and reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.

However, Dr Barnes says his original research did not include a measure of criminal activity or anti-social behaviour.

Now, with the help of a new £10,000 British Academy grant, he will look at the overlap between “troubled” families – those with multiple disadvantages – and “trouble” families – those who display criminal, anti-social and other deviant behaviour.

He said: “The project will allow discussion of the link between poverty (troubled families) and deviance (trouble families), drawing on sociological theories of a criminal underclass, stigmatisation of the poor, and, in light of the recent debates about austerity, the nexus between the deserving and undeserving poor.”

The Cabinet Office’s figure was based on data from the 2004 Families and Children Survey (FACS), which involved more than 7,000 families in Britain. A troubled family was defined as having at least one dependent child and five or more disadvantages from a list of seven:

1) No parent in the family is in work

2) Family lives in poor-quality or overcrowded housing

3) No parent has any qualifications

4) Mother has mental health problems

5) At least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity

6) Family has low income

7) Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items

The new analysis will use data from the Offending Crime and Justice Survey (OCJS) and the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW). Both surveys collect similar disadvantage indicators as FACS but also collect information on criminal, anti-social and other deviant behaviours.

The project will begin in autumn 2015 and the findings will be launched at an event to be held at City in summer 2016.

Earlier this year, it was announced the Troubled Families programme will be extended to cover an extra 400,000 families.

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