There still aren't 120,000 "troubled families"

A zombie statistic refuses to die, even as the DCLG helps 3,000 real families.

The government is very happy that its "troubled families" intervention programme is having results, with the BBC reporting that:

Early intervention by a dedicated case worker has reduced crime among those people involved by 45%… Anti-social behaviour has gone down by 59%.

Those are good results, even if the vast majority of the report is case studies of a few of the families involved. As for the actual results, the vast majority of quantitative data presented is percentage changes. This is clearly important; but it's also crucial to know how many troubled families actually exist, and how many can be helped. After all, a programme which is targeted at just a handful of families isn't particularly useful in the grand scheme of things.

This is an area the government, and the BBC, fall down on severely. The Department for Communities and Local Government's report claims, three times, that there are 120,000 families.

This is incredibly unlikely to be true. We've explained before, in detail, why this is the case, but the short version is that the DCLG claimed there were 120,000 troubled families defined with one set of criteria, but then changed the definition and continued claiming 120,000 families existed.

Unless two markedly different groups of people both add up to 120,000, it seems likely that this number was just pulled out of thin air (none of the research which the DCLG has made available explains where it came from). And yet today's report, and the BBC write-up, repeats it.

The BBC also claims that 40,000 families are expected to be helped this year, which would be a twelve-fold increase from the 3,324 families who were actually helped in 2011-2012 (and, of course, would still be just a third of the claimed eligibility). That figure of 3,324 is not mentioned anywhere in the BBC's report, nor the DCLG's press-release.

The trouble families programme does seem to be a great help to those families successfully referred to it, as Casey's report makes clear. But it is helping far, far fewer families than media reports make out; and part of that may be because no-one seems to actually know how many families are even eligible.

Broken window. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear