Troubled Families Fund: Of course it failed

One of the big problems with how mental health problems are dealt with in Britain is time. Specifically, that there’s not enough spent on helping people who are suffering. For all that it’s probably the most endemic form of problem in modern society, with one in six people affected by a common mental health problem every week, the resources allocated are laughable. Campaign groups like Mind have been banging on about this for years, noting that:

Many of you have told us that you aren’t getting the support you need or being treated fairly and with respect, because of a lack of understanding about mental health and negative stereotypes of people on benefits … Mainstream back-to-work schemes for people with mental health problems simply aren’t working. We need a new programme with person-centred, specialist support that understands people with mental health problems … too many of you are receiving poor and inaccurate assessments … sanctions do not work for people with mental health problems who are disproportionally affected by them.

I’ve lost count of the number of friends who have reported similar. When you’ve got no resources and are relying on State aid, it boils down to stringent conditionality, DWP letters essentially telling you to “buck up and be positive” and if you finally are diagnosed with a problem, foreshortened band-aid versions of favoured solutions — talking therapy courses which only last four weeks, for example. Better than nothing and helpful at the time, but then they disappear and the sufferer is left with exactly the same problems as when they started, usually stemming from factors the State has no interest in or is actively making worse.

Which brings us to David Cameron’s flagship Troubled Families Fund, pilloried today by its own study which noted “we were unable to find consistent evidence that the troubled families programme had any significant or systematic impact.”

In government parlance, “troubled” families were identified as exhibiting “problems” on a regular basis — itself a hopelessly essentialist approach). Even beyond the above factors, the very first section of the report hinted at the hopeless vacuity of the way in which government wonks had drawn it up. The factors which they initially believed made for a “troubled family” for example included:

  • no parent in work;
  • the family living in poor-quality or overcrowded housing;
  • no parent had any qualifications;
  • the mother had mental health problems;
  • at least one parent had a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity;
  • the family had a low income (below 60 per cent of the median);
  • the family could not afford a number of items of food and clothing.

So poor people = troublesome people and it’s mainly down to mum, in other words. Later, they added in past criminal behaviour, kids not in school, being on benefits and being “a high cost the public purse.” All of which can be factors in pushing people into self-destructive behaviours of course, but in its essence the entire programme was centred around the idea of telling poor people how to be better people — the same failed, high-handed, goal-oriented shtick that governments always use, with a mighty £4,000 per family set aside to do so.

£4,000, mostly to pay for a “dedicated family worker” (ie. a social worker with a few added jobs) to “help” people whose main issue appears to be that they’re impoverished. This was to be achieved by …

  • Giving local councils an intentionally vague edict to improve “employment, benefit receipt, school attendance, safeguarding and child welfare” in the target families.
  • Only paying councils if results were achieved (meaning if immediate improvements weren’t secured the councils would actively be out of pocket).

That’s £4,000 to push people who, if the government has got it right and identified them correctly as being “troubled” will be facing multiple poverty-related issues and possibly broad mental and/or physical health problems, into work, out of things like drug dependency, to stop child abuse etc not just short-term, but long term. And councils don’t even get the £4,000 if outcomes aren’t good, meaning that, in an age of austerity, they are unlikely to focus on cases with no quick payoff. In some cases, councils just picked out families where they could demonstrate “progress” (ie who were doing a bit better than early on regardless of intervention) and claimed them as victories. As researcher Jonathan Portes noted in his Guardian column on the subject:

Each of the councils involved were somewhat miraculously turning around the exact number of “troubled families’ they had been asked to target – 2,385 in Manchester, more than 2,000 in Leeds and so on.

And this is where the programme’s failures dovetail with the mental health notes I started with. Governments love to intervene. They love to tell the public that they’re doing something to help “the feral poor” become constructive members of society. But, where they’re not just assuming the poor are criminals by virtue of being poor, it’s another four-week course for people who need solidarity and support lasting years, with a sprinkling of classic resource-grabbing brinkmanship between councils and Westminster. None of the core reasons for this misery are ever dealt with, none of the Parliamentary experts drawing them up have the faintest clue (or interest in) what sort of commitment is required, and so programmes like the Troubled Families Fund will always fail, no matter their initial glowing testimonies.