‘Troubled families’

The term ‘troubled families’ covers a multitude of sins. It refers to both the social problems the families are victim to, and the trouble that the families themselves cause in their communities. The balance of emphasis is presumably down to your own political viewpoint.

The current government has announced that there are more families which fall under their definition of ‘troubled’ than previously thought. The proposed solution is to carry on with the programme of intensive interventions that aim to turn troubled families around. This style of intervention works – families in the programme are twice as likely to stop anti-social behaviour. But there is no attempt to tackle the underlying causes, and prevent families from falling into the category in the first place.

When you look at the government’s criteria, this is surprising. Most of them stem from structural issues, over which families have little control – being on a low income, unable to afford basics, poor housing, and parents with no qualifications. The intervention must then focus on the ‘trouble’ the families cause, rather than that they find themselves in. It’s the usual suspects: antisocial behaviour, domestic violence, and poor health behaviours.

But when they throw things like obesity and chronic disease at an early age into the mix, you blur the line between personal responsibility and the influence of outside factors. This may be just the point; to blame poverty on the poor. Of course both societal and individual factors are important determinants of social problems. But rather than being alternatives, they represent different levels of explanation.

‘Troubled families’ are people who have ended up on a very fast life history strategy. The social problems they experience map perfectly onto the traits identified in the life history theory literature. For instance, the government report aims to get children back into school, reduce youth crime and antisocial behaviour, and ‘put adults on a path back to work’. Domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse is also associated with troubled families. Compare these issues with those quoted in a paper on life history theory:

“For example, people who exhibit criminal and delinquent behaviours also tend to abuse legal or illegal substances, experience familial problems, such as familial distress, father absence, unemployment or underemployment, drop out of school, and exhibit social distress, teen pregnancy, and psychopathology.” – Figueredo et al. (2006)

This is in no way surprising – the link between the fast strategy and deprivation is iron-clad – and ‘troubled families’ is just a rebranding of the poorest in society.

The problems which people seem to bring upon themselves make a tragic sense when viewed through the lens of life history theory. Parenting functions to prepare children for adulthood. If all you have experienced in life is harsh conditions and poor relationships, it makes sense (evolutionarily) to prepare your children for the same. This is how we evolved to deal with adversity. It’s just that in modern societies, only some people experience adversity, leaving the rest uncomprehending of the consequences.

The academic literature on life history theory recognises that many social problems fall within its purview. To quote Figueredo et al. (2006):

“The social and behavioural literature indicates that many behavioural traits commonly considered “social problems” in modern industrial society occur in such clusters…[Life History Theory] construes such clusters to be coordinated arrays of contingently adaptive life-history traits.”

The message is that what is considered problem behaviour is in fact our default response to deprivation. Unfortunately, this message hasn’t been communicated to policymakers who could use it as a powerful tool to prevent problems developing. Of course some existing policies are consistent with the implication from life history theory that reducing poverty will have manifold benefits. But their case could be considerably strengthened by a wider understanding of the behavioural syndrome which underlies such a range of social problems.

The strength of the link between the fast life history strategy and social problems, and the variety of separate research fields it has been identified in, suggests that no amount of remedial effort can fully negate it. What actually troubles deprived families, and society in general, is the fast life history strategy.

How Labour can Explain Inequality

Ed Miliband has already said he will put the idea behind The Spirit Level at the heart of his manifesto. He recognises that the body of evidence cited in the book has massive implications for Labour’s policies. The history of scientific ideas entering mainstream politics is not auspicious though. Climate change and drugs are two examples of issues where policy lags disastrously far behind scientific evidence.

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Some people hold entrenched views on either side of any debate, but answering why some open-minded people aren’t convinced by the evidence is key to shifting the weight of public opinion. The answer lies in those people failing to engage with the evidence – it takes a certain way of thinking to absorb data and construct a coherent explanation of it. Too often evidence is presented in isolation, in a didactic manner, and with no reference to the underlying causes. Labour needs to explain not merely that inequality is harmful, but why inequality is harmful.

If the numerous correlations of inequality and bad outcomes in The Spirit Level are simply held up as irrefutable evidence, they will be refuted by ideological opponents (as they already have been) and claimed to be politics-based evidence. Labour needs to dig beyond the correlations to the underlying causation, because the general public are much more likely to latch on to a narrative of how inequality changes behaviour. This will be more comprehensible, logical, memorable, and much easier to rally round as a cause than dry statistics.

This format is too short to fully explain why inequality is harmful, but a brief account follows. Humans are a highly socially hierarchical species. Game theoretical models show that cooperation between people is adaptive when the hierarchy is relatively equal. This is because there isn’t much to gain by trying to get ahead of someone else. The more unequal it becomes however, the more one stands to gain by moving up the hierarchy – or lose by going in the opposite direction. So cooperation is less adaptive, and people behave more competitively in an attempt to get one over on others. Social status becomes the be-all and end-all.

This competitive behaviour and the anticipation of being on the receiving end of it leads to a decrease in trust. People also become more stressed and anxious as a result. Unhealthy (comfort) eating increases which in turn increases obesity. Drug abuse goes up as people self-medicate. The extreme social pressure leads to much more mental illness. Children forced to grow up too fast are less well educated and have more teenage pregnancies. People obsessed with their social status react more violently to being disrespected. And needless to say, social mobility languishes.

Inequality changes the rules of the game, and brings out the worst in our malleable human nature. Labour could highlight this fact to those who have a pessimistic view of human nature. And they could finally offer an alternative model of society to the current broken system, one grounded in science not ideology.