Friday, 27 October 2017

The myth of a dangerous ‘underclass’: a real horror story for Hallowe’en

Guest post by Stephen Crossley, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University

With Hallowe’en nearly upon us, many parents will be telling their children tales of ghouls and ghosts that can be found in haunted houses. Adults will entertain themselves by watching horror movies and other productions where other-worldly creatures and monsters intrude upon peaceful and civilised spaces to threaten the status quo and the existing order of things. Most of us know that ghosts, spirits, and the like are the stuff of legend and lore and tend not to believe the mythology associated with them. But many people in contemporary society do believe in myths about groups of people that are different to the rest of ‘us’, who exhibit different social norms and values to the mainstream population, and who invoke fear and dread in many of us. Many people watch the behaviour of ‘the underclass’,[1] in the name of entertainment, with a mixture of fear, horror, fascination, and contempt. The ‘underclass’, it is believed, can be found in certain locations. There is a long history to such beliefs.

William Hogarth's depiction of London vice, Gin Lane.
In Victorian times, the middle and upper classes of London spent a great deal of time going ‘slumming’, visiting poorer parts of the East End for various reasons, including their amusement and titillation, and for philanthropic and journalistic purposes.[2] In 1883, George Sims, an English poet, journalist, dramatist and novelist, began his book How the Poor Live by inviting the reader to go a journey with him, not across oceans or land, but ‘into a region which lies at our own doors – into a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office’.[3] Sims hoped that this continent would be:
As interesting as any of those newly-explored lands which engage the attention of the Royal Geographic Society – the wild races who inhabit it will, I trust, gain public sympathy as easily as those savage tribes for whose benefit the Missionary Societies never cease to appeal for funds.
William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army argued in 1890 that certain areas of London were like parts of Africa that had just been discovered by explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley Africa, and were similarly full of primitives and savages. In 1977, the sociologist E.V. Walter noted that, whilst such beliefs had changed somewhat, traces of them remained:
In all parts of the world, some urban spaces are identified totally with danger, pain and chaos. The idea of dreadful space is probably as old as settled societies, and anyone familiar with the records of human fantasy, literary or clinical, will not dispute a suggestion that the recesses of the mind conceal primeval feelings that respond with ease to the message: ‘Beware that place: untold evils lurk behind the walls’. Cursed ground, forbidden forests, haunted houses are still universally recognised symbols, but after secularisation and urbanisation, the public expression of magical thinking limits the experience of menacing space to physical and emotional dangers.[4]
Indeed, in recent times, the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith argued that the television programme Benefits Street offered the middle classes a window into the ‘twilight world’ of neighbourhoods where many people received financial support from the state.[5] The ‘twilight world’ of welfare dependency that Duncan Smith refers to elicits feelings of mystery, anxiety, and the unfamiliar, feelings of nervous excitement that the original social explorers must have felt in the late nineteenth century or what middle class travellers of today might experience whilst ‘doing the slum’ on foreign holidays.

Whilst the words have changed slightly, the myth of a dangerous ‘underclass’ who dwell in ‘dreadful enclosures’ or ‘sink estates’, and who represent a threat to wider society remains. If we want a real horror story for Hallowe’en, we need look no further than how large sections of society view a mythical ‘underclass’ and how they view the places associated with impoverished communities.

Dr Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. His first book In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty is out now with Pluto Press. He tweets at @akindoftrouble


References:
  1. John Welshman, Underclass: A History of the Excluded Since 1880 (2nd edition), London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  2. Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2004.
  3. George Sims, How the poor live, London: Chatto & Windus, 1883, p1.
  4. E.V. Walter, Dreadful Enclosures: Detoxifying and Urban Myth, European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1977), p 154. 
  5. BBC News online, Benefits Street reaction shows poor 'ghettoised', says Duncan Smith, 23 January 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25866259 [Accessed 27 November 2016] 
Images:
  1. William Hogarth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Generations' (8690911868_23ce2c05a0_z) by ‘Byzantine_K’ via Flickr.com, copyright © 2013: https://www.flickr.com/photos/november5/8690911868

Friday, 20 October 2017

Monopoly money, pitching to the converted, and sending Mr Grumpy away happy: doing home and healthy ageing research differently

Dr Philip Hodgson, Senior Research Assistant, Northumbria University


Endings are rubbish, right?  Whether it be a great novel, play, film, TV series – there’s always that feeling that no matter how things are pulled together, it will never be as good as you have pictured in your imagination.  And then, you know, it just ends…

It was perhaps with this in mind that we decided to take a different approach in the last of our four workshops on home and healthy ageing.  Rather than guest speakers being invited to share their knowledge and prompt discussion, the project team attempted to summarise and pitch their ideas for future research back to the group (think Dragons’ Den).  This proved to be challenging, as the previous sessions had been so rich that even synthesising them into brief slides was difficult, never mind placing them in a strategic context for the participants to critique and reflect upon.  Yet, three key themes were identified.  These were in addition to the concept of a ‘home’ being more than just bricks and mortar but personal/psychological, physical and social/environment space(s) – an idea that we used as a starting block in week one and illustrated below.

More than just bricks and mortar
'Home' illustration used in the seminars 
The key themes were:
  • Policies and contexts: not only a tension between housing and health policies, but also the need to consider market and narrative factors influencing housing and health decisions;
  • The life course approach: the need to think about housing as an individual pathway, in which preventative measures and services are considered before crisis point;
  • Transitions and soft services: the need for support to be available as and when people experience key housing and life changes, such as reduced physical health, retirement, or the loss of support networks and being able to navigate different services on offer.
However, this is where we’d like to leave you with a cliff hanger: rather than going through each of themes in-depth (fans of this series will have to wait for our spin off…  er, research papers for that!), we’d instead like to reflect on our process at this stage.  These sessions took a slightly different approach as, rather than being a series of open seminars with presentations that people could dip in and out of, we invited several key individuals to attend each session in turn.  The reasons for this were many, but primarily we wanted to ensure that a diverse range of backgrounds were represented throughout (housing providers, architects, academics, local authority workers, homelessness workers, etc.) to go on a learning journey with us as a research team.  This meant that by the time we reached the final session, there was enough of a shared understanding that we could make the most of the group’s commitment to the project – we would be actually able to start to pin down quite complex concepts, practical issues and, hopefully, future projects.

We tried out different formats to structure the discussions: from world caf├ęs, to games (with Monopoly money!) with researchers pitching ideas to mock panels, which worked to various degrees but always ensured a lively debate.

Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200
Pitching ideas with Monopoly money 
There were, of course, some difficulties.  As I’m sure everyone reading this will know, it is a lot to ask of a practitioner to take one morning out of their schedule, let alone for four seminars.  As a result, engagement had to remain a constant focus and I spent much time nervously lingering by the registration desk hoping for just a few more name badges to disappear before we started!  It was also a challenge in terms of managing the conversations during the sessions: you want all voices to be heard in such a diverse group but we all needed to be pulling in the same direction by the end.

Yet, by the final session, the rewards were immense.  Not only were we able to pitch ideas to a group who had already undergone some of the same learning as us, but this gave everybody the confidence to relate the complex theoretical issues to their own practice (allowing us to capture the breadth of what was possible).  It allowed us to discuss concrete projects, and leave the session with a sense of trust that networks were in place to actually deliver on them.  Perhaps most importantly we found that, what started as a broad idea, was something of relevance across the housing and health sectors.  Even the grumpiest of the project group (naming no names) left the day with a spring in their step.  For that alone, everyone who attended deserves some massive thanks…

So, who needs endings, when we can all just sign up to the sequel?

To be continued…



Photo 2: By James Petts from London, England (Monopoly) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 13 October 2017

From shock to the system, to system map and beyond: evaluating the UK sugary drinks tax

Guest post by Jean Adams, Centre for Diet & Activity Research (CEDAR), University of Cambridge

Mostly you don’t get to watch TV at work. The day that George Osborne announced he would introduce a tax on sugary drinks in the UK, here at CEDAR HQ we all stood huddled around a computer monitor watching and re-watching the words coming out of his mouth. 

Oh. My. Goodness. I did not see that coming. 

The “soft drinks industry levy”, to give it it’s proper name.

A rather senior professor has since told me that he totally saw it coming.

After we’d got over the shock of the announcement, the conversation turned pretty quickly to research (well, this is a university, after all). We have got to evaluate this!

Colleagues at CEDAR had already written papers about how sugary drink taxes could be evaluated. We had talked with colleagues in other countries about evaluating their taxes – only for those taxes to fall through at the final political hurdle. I have more than one half-written application for research funds to evaluate sugary drink taxes stashed down the back of my computer.

And here it was, all systems go for designing an evaluation for a UK sugary drinks tax! In our back yard!

OK, so we have to work out whether it impacts on diet. But, what about jobs? Will people lose their jobs? Surely we need to know if it changes price and purchasing of sugary drinks. Right, but even if it does people might just shift to other foods – maybe they will just eat more cake instead? We are Public Health researchers, we need to focus on health: does the tax change how many people get diabetes? Or tooth decay? Or the number of obese children? And what about how this even happened? Did you see it coming? Why has this happened? Why now? Why don’t we do interviews with politicians and find out how it happened?

Woah, woah, woah! Ten seconds in and this is getting way more complicated than we (I) had ever thought it might. Before we did anything, we needed to work out what we thought might be going on here. Once we understood what the potential impacts might be, then we could start thinking about how we might evaluate them.

So that’s what we did. We spent 6 months developing a ‘systems map’ of the potential health-related impacts of the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy (aka sugary drinks tax). The tax is explicitly designed to encourage soft drinks’ manufacturers to take sugar out of their drinks. There are two levels – a higher tax for drinks with the most sugar, a lower one for only moderately sugary drinks. So we started there (at ‘reformulation’) and worked out.

Then we sense-checked our map with people working in government, charities, and the soft drinks industry. They made lots of suggestions for things we’d missed, or needed to clarify. We changed our map and asked people to check it again. We changed it again. Only then did we decide what we should, and could, evaluate.

The current version of our systems map (we still think of it as a work in progress). Larger version here.







Yes, we are going to look at how the price of sugary drinks changes over the next few years. But we are also going to look at the amount of sugar in soft drinks in UK supermarkets, and the range of drinks available. We’re going to use commercial data to look at purchasing of soft drinks, as well as other sugary foods. We’ll use the National Diet & Nutrition Survey to explore whether there are any changes in how many sugary drinks, and other sweet foods, people in the UK eat. We’ll use hospital data to see if the number of children admitted with severe dental decay decreases. We’ll use statistical modelling to predict how changes in how many soft drinks people drink might translate into cases of diabetes and heart disease. We’ll look at the impact of the tax on jobs, and the economy. We’ll explore the ‘political processes’ of why and how this tax happened at this time. And we’ll conduct surveys to find out what people in the UK think of sugar, sugary drinks, and the tax itself – and whether this changes over time.

Obviously it’s going to be a lot of work. We’re going to need some excellent people to join the team to help us actually do this thing. Personally, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed/excited/overwhelmed/excited. It’s going to be brilliant!

Wanna be part of it?

Friday, 6 October 2017

Looking for trouble: deceit and duplicity in the Troubled Families Programme

Introduced by Peter van der Graaf


Guest post by Stephen Crossley, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University

Many families facing health problems, limiting illnesses, or with disabled family members have been labelled as ‘troubled families’ under the government’s Troubled Families Programme. Originally established following the 2011 riots to ‘turn around’ the lives of 120,000 allegedly anti-social and criminal families, the programme is now in its second phase and is working with a far larger group of families, many of whom experience troubles, but don’t necessarily cause trouble. In April of this year, the focus of the programme shifted again in an attempt to improve the number of so-called ‘troubled families’ who moved back into employment, despite the majority of them being in work and many of the remainder not being expected to be looking or available for work.

The programme has been dogged by controversy from day one. Research about families experiencing multiple disadvantages was misrepresented at the launch of the programme to provide ‘evidence’ that there were 120,000 troublesome families in England. The government has since been accused of suppressing the official evaluation of the first phase of the programme after it found ‘no discernible impact’ of the programme and also of ‘over-claiming’ the 99% success rate of the first phase. 

David Cameron with Louise Casey, former Director General of Troubled Families

Many health workers will be involved with the delivery of the Troubled Families Programme in their day-to-day work, although there is also a good chance that they will not be aware of it. Many local authorities do not refer to their local work as ‘troubled families’ because of the stigmatising rhetoric and imagery associated with it. Many families are not aware that they have been labelled as ‘troubled families’ for the same reason, and because it would undoubtedly hinder engagement with the programme. They are not always made aware that the data that is collected on them as part of the programme, is shared with other local agencies and, in an anonymised format, with central government.

My PhD research, conducted in three different local authority areas, found that the programme was based on, and relied upon duplicity from design to implementation. Despite government narratives about the programme attempting to ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, the programme appeared to be more concerned with helping to restructure what support to disadvantaged families looks like, and reducing the cost of such families to the state.

For example, support – both symbolic and financial - for universal services, such as libraries, children’s centres and youth projects, is reducing. Direct financial support to marginalised groups is also being cut, with welfare reforms hitting many of the most disadvantaged groups hardest. These forms of support, and many other more specialist services, are being replaced, rhetorically at least, by an intensive form of ‘family intervention’ which allegedly sees a single key worker capable of working with all members of the family, able to ‘turn around’ their lives no matter what problems, health-related or otherwise, they may be facing or causing.

The simplistic central government narrative of the almost perfect implementation of the Troubled Families Programme was not to be found ‘on the ground’, where there were multiple frustrations and concerns about the depiction of the families and the programme, and numerous departures from the official version of events. Despite the rhetoric of ‘turning around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, in the face of cuts in support and benefits to families, my PhD thesis concluded that the Troubled Families Programme does little more than intervene to help struggling families to cope with their poverty better, despite the efforts of local practitioners.

Put simply, the programme does not attempt to address the structural issues that cause many of the problems faced by ‘troubled families’, but instead encourages them to ‘learn to be poor’. In my previous Fuse blog, I drew on the concept of ‘lifestyle drift’ advanced by David Hunter and Jenny Popay: where the focus of interventions drifts towards attempting to change individual behaviour, despite the wealth of evidence pointing to other solutions. There is no room in the narrative for wider determinants of people’s circumstances. Because of this, the government’s Troubled Families Programme will do little to turn around the lives and health of the families it claims to help.


A summary of Stephen Crossley’s PhD research can be found here. His first book In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty is out now with Pluto Press. He tweets at @akindoftrouble


Photograph ‘Almost 40,000 troubled families helped’ (14087270645_3453006d12_c) by ‘Number 10’ via Flickr.com, copyright © 2014: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/14087270645