The Problem With Troubled Families: Rethinking the “120,000” Troubled Families Statistic

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Matt Barnes and Andy Ross. Click here to access the article.


In the aftermath of the 2011 England riots, the then Prime Minister David Cameron referred to a ‘small number of families as the source of a large number of problems in society’ (Cameron, 2011). Soon after, the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) was set up by the government to ‘turn around’ these 120,000 troubled families – at a cost to the public purse of £448 million. Despite government rhetoric focusing on ‘neighbours from hell’ (ibid.) the initial statistical estimate of the number of troubled families did not incorporate any measure of problematic behaviours, such as crime or anti- social behaviour. Instead, a measure previously used by government to classify families with multiple social and economic disadvantages was used (Social Exclusion Task Force, 2007a). 

Our research re-analysed the data behind the 120,000 troubled families statistic to explore the overlap between families with multiple social and economic disadvantage and their engagement in problematic behaviours. We show that although families experiencing multiple social and economic disadvantage were at an increased risk of displaying problematic behaviour, only a small minority did so. We discuss the implications of this for evidence-based policy making and the stigmatization of the poor.

Backdrop and methods

In 2007, SETF led a cross-Whitehall review on ‘families at risk’; a shorthand term for families (with children) that had multiple, entrenched and reinforcing social and economic disadvantages. As part of the background research to this review, SETF conducted in-house research to help identify how many multiply-disadvantaged families there were. The SETF research found that 2 per cent of families with children in Britain, which equated to around 120,000 families in England, experienced multiple disadvantage – defined as having five or more from a list of seven social and economic disadvantages:

  1. No parent in the family is in work 
  2. Family lives in poor-quality or overcrowded housing 
  3. No parent has any qualifications 
  4. Mother has mental health problems 
  5. At least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity 
  6. Family has low income 
  7. Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items

We reanalysed the same dataset used in the SETF research – the Families and Children Study (FACS) – a panel survey of approximately 7,000 families. We align our approach to measuring problematic behaviour (which the survey does measure) with the aims of the TFP, which targeted families:

  1. Involved in crime and families involved in anti-social behaviour
  2. Affected by truancy or exclusion from school
  3. With adults on out of work benefits
  4. That cause high cost to the public purse, for example through repeated service use


Our analysis shows that only a small proportion (one in six, or 13 per cent) of the 120,000 troubled families were displaying problematic behaviours according to an approximation of the TFP criteria.  Focusing on those behaviours that the government highlighted as particularly ‘problematic’, only 6 per cent of the 120,000 troubled families had children involved in crime and anti-social behaviour, and only 14 per cent had children not in school. 

Unsurprisingly the vast majority (96 per cent) of ‘troubled families’ were receiving out of work benefits given that they represent a safety net for workless and low-income families. ‘Troubled families’ were also disproportionately likely to have long-term health issues and to be using social or welfare services  (relevant to TFP criterion 4). 

Table: Percentage of families displaying Troubled Families Programme (TFP) criteria according to their level of social disadvantage, cell per cent


Our analysis shows that only a minority of families with multiple social and economic disadvantages displayed problematic behaviours such as crime and anti-social behaviour. It is therefore difficult to argue that multiple disadvantage is a key driver of these behaviours. As Sayer (2017: 160) states, ‘…(multiple) difficulties do not necessarily lead to the pathologies highlighted in the Troubled Families Programme discourse: the relationship is probabilistic rather than deterministic’. If multiple disadvantage is unlikely to be driving problematic behaviours it should not be the focus of policy interventions that aim to reduce the incidence of such behaviours. In actual fact, the government’s strategy represents the continuation of a long history of governmental interest in the monitoring and regulating of families that are perceived to be the source of a number of social problems in society (Gregg, 2010). In relatively recent times governments have labelled these families as ‘problem families’, ‘the underclass’, examples of ‘broken Britain’, ‘chaotic families’ (Macnicol, 2017; Lambert, 2019), and more recently, ’families with complex needs’ and ‘troubled families’ (Cameron, 2010).

Equating problematic behaviours with social and economic disadvantage risks distorting and stigmatising the actions of the poor (Levitas, 2012; Hoggett and Frost, 2018). Welshman (2013) has raised the issue of the Troubled Families Programme problematising certain family conditions, such as mental health and worklessness. As Butler (2014: 420) says ‘It is what the Troubled Families Programme has contributed to our thinking about those in troubled families that matters, not what it has done for the families concerned, nor even what it has done to make savings from the public purse’. It can lead to the stigmatising of these families in both policy and media circles (Crossley, 2018).

Our research highlights the need for the careful application of quantitative methods in the conduct of evidence-based policy making. Headline statistics can have implications for the budget allocated to the policy programme – the funding for the Troubled Families Programme was calculated as the cost of the policy intervention multiplied by the target number of policy recipients; 120,000 in this case. It is also a reminder of the importance of definitional and measurement precision in the timely use of evidence in policy making; something that needs continuous consideration in the climate of reactive policy making (and particularly relevant today given the speed of changing evidence during a pandemic).

To summarise, the SETF research should not have been used by the government to quantify the number of troubled families that were the focus of the original Troubled Families Programme. It strongly suggests an association between multiple social and economic disadvantage and problematic behaviours, which our own analysis of that same dataset suggests is weak at best. Nor should the troubled families statistic have been the basis for which local authorities were told how many troubled families to target to ‘turn around’, or used to help cost the funding required for the overall programme. In short, the 120,000 troubled families statistic was not a good foundation for policy making.

About the authors

Matt Barnes is Senior Lecturer at City University, London.

Andy Ross is a Doctoral Researcher at University College London.


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