CRESR Seminar - Gender, families and control: Reflections on welfare conditionality

Start date: 
Wed, 13/06/2018
Closing date: 
Wed, 13/06/2018
Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus, Stoddart Building, Room 7139
Event contact: 
Ian Wilson & Ben Pattison (Tel: 0114 225 3073)


Larissa Povey and Emily Ball
Sheffield Hallam University and University of Sheffield


Presentation 1: Warehoused on the margins? Women, welfare conditionality and punishment

Larissa Povey

This presentation is based on a forthcoming book chapter which explores the lived experiences of women at the penal-welfare nexus, a space where social and penal policy overlaps. 'Penal-welfarism' was initially used to reflect the "post-war 'Golden Age'" shift towards welfarist and rehabilitative policies (Esping-Anderson, 1996; Garland, 2001). However, since the 1980s public policy has taken a more punitive trajectory, which has resulted in a more expansive and punitive criminal justice system as well as the penalization of welfare (Foucault, 1977; Pratt et. al., 2005; Bumiller, 2013). It focuses on their attempts to move away from the social margins, reintegrate into society and move closer to the labour market. It draws on new empirical data from in-depth qualitative interviews with 24 women who have offended or are considered to be 'at risk' of offending, conducted in two UK cities between January 2016 to February 2017. The chapter examines how UK social institutions, and in particular a welfare system characterised by increasing conditionality, impact on women engaged in community-based services which aim to divert them from prison and reduce recidivism. In doing so, it foregrounds the context of gendered precariousness which criminalized women inhabit under 'penal-welfare paternalism' (Roberts, 2016).

The focus on the use of sanctions and support to promote behaviour change is a growing area of research, with evidence suggesting that rather than a ‘hand up’ the welfare system in its current guise can bestow more of a ‘slap down’ (Fletcher and Wright, 2017). This chapter aims to highlight another dynamic of the current welfare regime by exploring its impact on a specific group of women subject to multiple, overlapping policy arms of the state. The problem for this group is not so much the behaviour change agenda and sanctions that underpin the UK’s increasingly conditional social security system; many make attempts to live a 'good life', and the experience of sanctioning is low – rather, for women experiencing advanced marginality, it is the dearth of support available to help them reach their goals.

There is limited space for agency within the confines of the disciplinary archipelago, and in some cases an internalisation of the terms by which they must live to receive social assistance. Yet within this bleak picture, and in spite of pressures bearing down upon this marginalised group, some women had begun to forge new identities and move towards a more stable daily life. Nevertheless, this stability was fragile; vulnerable to the challenges and crises of everyday life at the social margins, reduced funding for community services and at the mercy of changing expectations placed on them under ongoing welfare reform.

Presentation 2: Exploring the behavioural outcomes of family-based intensive interventions

Emily Ball

This paper discusses the implications of sanctioning and support within family-based intervention mechanisms. The aim of interventions, rolled out during New Labour (1997-2010) in the form of Family Intervention Projects and then continued during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government as the Troubled Families programme, was to change the undesirable behaviour of families labelled ‘problematic’. Using a key worker model and coordinating comprehensive packages of family support, intensive work was undertaken with families to address issues such as poor parenting, financial support, substance misuse, lack of daily routine and poor physical and mental health.

The paper considers what is meant by ‘behaviour change’ by considering the ‘success’ of change in families that are referred for intensive interventions. Based on PhD empirical research that took place in a post-industrial northern city between 2015-2016, this chapter argues that the binary of no behaviour change/behaviour change based on fixed policy outcomes does not consider the policy and practice implications of families that are subject to conditionality that cannot change, resist change or do not make progress or cannot maintain behaviour change.

This paper problematises the policy implications of non-behaviour change by exploring the concept of ‘good enough’ change, defined by practitioners as enabling enough progress for families to function from day to day without equating to transformative behaviour change. This is because working with families is not always about behaviour change or changing families but about solving immediate problems and meeting basic needs. The research evidence stressed that it is a matter of supporting families to address the myriad disadvantages and issues they face rather than coercing them into change.


Larissa Povey

Larissa is a Research Associate, Associate Lecturer in Criminology and PhD Candidate at Sheffield Hallam University.

Larissa's doctoral research focuses on vulnerable women who have been involved in the Criminal Justice System (CJS). It examines gendered experiences of those in advanced marginality as they work towards 'living a good life', whilst navigating the tougher welfare conditionality and sanctions regime and local service withdrawal in austerity Britain.

The use of sanctions in the UK has grown exponentially as a means of inducing correct behaviour in welfare recipients. As the role of the welfare state shrinks, responsibility has shifted to individuals who have an ‘obligation to work’. These punitive ‘activation’ reforms have arguably impacted vulnerable groups in unforeseen ways; it is no coincidence that the rise in sanctions has been accompanied by an increase in the award of financial hardship grants.

Within both welfarist and penal discourses ‘welfare dependent’ and ‘criminal’ are constructed as social ‘problems’; employment is heralded as a panacea to these ‘problems’. The convergence of these discourses impacts on how women in poverty and women in conflict with the law are perceived, and the conceptualisation of women being 'at risk'.

This PhD project seeks to understand women's experiences at the nexus of welfare and penal policy and the suitability of the welfare system to successfully engage with female ex-offenders and those 'at risk' of offending.

Latest publication: POVEY, L. (2017). Where welfare and criminal justice meet: applying Wacquant to the experiences of marginalized women in austerity Britain. Social Policy & Society (16)2, pp. 271–281

Emily Ball

Emily Ball is a Teaching Associate in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Birmingham. She has recently completed her doctoral thesis which explored the relationship between conditionality and the concept of behaviour change within family based mechanisms under the Troubled Families Programme. Intensive family interventions are employed as a key strategy to challenge undesirable behaviour and lack of responsibility in families. Using a key worker approach, joined-up and wrap around care is used to holistically address and support all family members in order to tackle to root causes of problematic behaviour. If families fail to comply with certain behavioural standards, they risk facing a range of sanctions.

The thesis considered the extent to which intensive intervention projects can ‘make’ individuals alter their behaviour and by what means this may be achieved.

Using a longitudinal and qualitative approach, Emily tracked the experiences of ten families who were subject to family interventions over several months. Service providers were also interviewed in order to understand how behaviour change is defined, navigated and measured from a practice perspective.

Latest publication: Ball, E., Batty, E., & Flint, J. (2016). Intensive Family Intervention and the Problem Figuration of ‘Troubled Families’. Social Policy and Society, 15(2), 263-274.

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