In June 1972, Sir Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Social Services, referred in a speech to a ‘cycle of deprivation’, and a large-scale Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS)–Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Research Programme on Transmitted Deprivation was established. Earlier work has explored the cycle speech and Research Programme with regard to the history of the concept of the ‘underclass’, the career of Keith Joseph himself and his subsequent attitude to the SSRC, and in terms of the links with New Labour's focus on ‘cycles of disadvantage’. Nevertheless, in general, both have been neglected by historians. This article explores the origins of the 1972 speech, noting continuities between the cycle and Sir Keith's earlier concern with ‘problem families’, and placing it in the context of wider thinking on family planning and poverty. It traces the establishment of the DHSS–SSRC Research Programme, and examines tensions between civil servants and social science researchers, and within the SSRC itself. The article argues that the cycle speech and Research Programme are important and neglected aspects of contemporary history, illustrating significant continuities in late nineteenth and twentieth-century thought on poverty, and offering intriguing insights into the outlook of a generation of social scientists.