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The problems with troubled families: Rethinking the analysis behind the 120,000 troubled families statistic

Barnes, M. ORCID: 0000-0002-0702-5222 & Ross, A. (2023). The problems with troubled families: Rethinking the analysis behind the 120,000 troubled families statistic. Social Policy and Society, 22(4), pp. 636-654. doi: 10.1017/s1474746421000725


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 this announcement, the Troubled Families Programme was set up by the government, with a budget of £448 million to ‘turn around’ 120,000 troubled families. Despite government rhetoric focusing on ‘neighbours from hell’ (ibid.) with a ‘culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations’ (ibid.), the initial estimate of the number of troubled families did not include any indicators 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, such as low income, poor housing and health problems, was used (Social Exclusion Task Force, 2007a).

This article revisits the analysis behind the initial identification of the 120,000 troubled families and explores more widely the overlap between families with multiple social and economic disadvantage and their engagement in problematic behaviours. It does this through analysis of the same dataset used to create the 120,000 troubled families statistic – the Families and Children Study (FACS). Our reanalysis of FACS reveals that although families experiencing multiple social and economic disadvantage were at an increased risk of displaying problematic behaviour, only a small minority did so. A more thorough analysis of this data by government prior to the introduction of the Troubled Families Programme may have changed the basis of economic calculations that underpinned the programme, and some of the misleading rhetoric around ‘troubled families’.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
H Social Sciences > HT Communities. Classes. Races
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
SWORD Depositor:
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