Thursday, 26 July 2012

Povertyism in policy: ‘troubled families’ Here’s a good example of the distortion that can happen in that murky space between research and policy. There are purported to be between 117,000 and 120,000 'families with multiple problems'. Last week Louise Casey, the government’s adviser on ‘troubled families’, appeared to be basing policy on interviews with sixteen pre-selected families. Eight of the sixteen families had four or more children. Seven had five or more, while two families had nine and twelve children respectively. Were they representative, and if so, of what? Inevitably, eyebrows are raised because we know how it works: you have a political steer and a theory – in this case, the sceptic might say, the theory concerns families that deviate from the Surrey-Oxfordshire norm, not least by being poor – and you find the evidence to support it. This is also an example of the government's presented style of pragmatic understanding of issues: not unwelcome if done properly. Casey shows aggressive determination to be doing ‘the right thing’ (a favourite coalition hollow phrase) which is ‘to get our sleeves rolled up nationally, locally and in these people's lives.’ Many of those whose lives she wants to get stuck in and change ‘have large families and keep having children, often with different fathers, even if they are struggling to cope with the children they already have.’ Well, this government still funds independent researchers, I'm pleased to say, so let’s hear what one of them has to say, while we still can. In a paper on the ESRC’s Poverty and social exclusion website, Ruth Levitas summarises Casey’s presentation of the problem as ‘one of large families by multiple partners forming a burgeoning dysfunctional underclass resistant to reform.’ But Levitas says that from what we know of the sample, having ‘loads of children’ cannot be shown to be one of the characteristics of families with multiple problems. Nor are the children from these families ‘overwhelmingly likely to be involved in crime and anti-social behaviour or be excluded from school.’ The accepted definition of a family with multiple problems is one that has five of the following seven characteristics: No parent in the family is in work; Family lives in overcrowded housing; No parent has any qualifications; Mother has mental health problems; At least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; Family has low income (below 60% of median income); Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items. So it’s reasonable to ask why Casey has picked out some other feature, assumed rather than evidence-based, on which to focus. Some large families on low incomes, with or without multiple problems, will be trembling at her threatened approach, like aboriginals at the appearance of armed self-righteous missionaries. And the rest of us will continue to be subjected to the poisonous message that poor people who have lots of children are a burden, requiring a muscular 'sort-you-lot-out' approach from the haves. Previously: It's the poverty, stupid It's the povertyism, stupid
The hidden wealth of informal activities Instinctively I flinch at the phrase ‘hidden wealth of communities’ because I just think, here they come, the Haves want to take that as well. Well it’s been tough for the rich and powerful lately and they’ve started to get a little uneasy about the rate of return on their enormous investments. And really, one can’t help thinking that poor people just have to work harder, it’s not good enough, let’s see what else we can plunder from them. What’s this social capital they have, couldn’t we make something out of that? The model’s straightforward: if only poor people would do more with their social capital – all those network connections made in clubs and pubs and community centres, my dear fellow, places where they laugh at stuff one simply wouldn’t comprehend – public services would become obsolete or cost less to run and profit would be easier to make at the top. Yes, it could be deemed offensive for people with lots of money to describe the social capital of people on low incomes as ‘wealth’, and then to try to exploit it. Having said that, semantic niceties aside, it does matter how local social connections give rise to informal and formal participation; and how they in turn relate to formal governance. I’d subscribe to the view put forward back in 2005 by Paul Skidmore and John Craig in Start with people (an unacknowledged precursor of some elements in current policy thinking): ‘we need to create greater value from the connections popular participation creates between public services, civil society and our structures of democratic representation.’ But it’s taking so long to get policy recognition for the value of those interactions, while all the time the third places we need for this associational life are increasingly threatened. Even the stoutest defender of the current government, and they do exist, stout ones anyway, could hardly deny the assertiveness (some might call it wanton vandalism) of its deconstruction of the public realm. It doesn’t help. Start with people explored the connections within and beyond civil society that are forged in community organisations. So, more broadly, does this recent report from ResPublica, Clubbing together, by Keith Cooper and Caroline Macfarland, sub-titled unfortunately ‘the hidden wealth of communities’. It explores the potential for a greater ‘club-culture’ in the UK. It offers a review and a very welcome discussion of the largely forsaken place of local clubs and community centres in associational life, mostly well-written, if clearly rushed. Will this report push the pace among policy makers, to help protect and promote local civil associations? There’s a crucial section on page 31 which refers to social impact statements and cites a Public Administration Select Committee report, ending – you might almost think inspirationally - with these points: ‘A better recognition of the hidden wealth of informal activities [that’s more like it] requires this more sophisticated understanding of how casual connections contribute to our national social capital stocks… Leisure pursuits, as ‘crucibles of casual connections’ that...

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