The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 1)

There has been a lot of media coverage recently of the ‘troubled families’ agenda and the ‘launch event’ held last week in Downing Street. At the event, David Cameron said:

“I’m committed to transforming the lives of families stuck in a cycle of unemployment, alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour, where children are truants from school – troubled families who cause such negativity within their communities and who drain resources from our councils.”

Laudable aims indeed, but the approach the government is taking has come in for a lot of criticism and so we’ve decided to do a couple of blogs exploring these. This first post will look at the way that problem families have been ‘identified’ with a couple of follow up posts looking at the concept of a homogeneous bunch of ‘troubled families’ and the unfortunate conflation of this policy with the child poverty agenda. We are not attempting to deny that there are families who do have complex problems and we also acknowledge that there are families who cause lots of problems. Sometimes, these will be the same families, but perhaps not always….


There are, according to the government, approximately 120,000 ‘troubled families’. This figure is derived from work carried out as part of the Families and Children Survey in 2004. So the figures are 8 years old. For North East readers, below is a table of the number of families in each local authority area in the region. National LA figures are available here.

Local   Authority Name Estimated No.   of families with multiple problems
Darlington 275
Durham 250
Gateshead 595
Hartlepool 290
Middlesbrough 570
Newcastle upon Tyne 1,010
North Tyneside 460
Northumberland 650
Redcar and Cleveland 405
South Tyneside 450
Stockton-on-Tees 455
Sunderland 805
Total NE Region 6,215


The identification of ‘troubled families’ relied on families meeting any 5 of 7 criteria in the survey:

a) no parent in work,

b) poor quality housing,

c) no parent with qualifications,

d) mother with mental health problems,

e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness,

f) family has low income,

g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

One of the major criticisms of the ‘troubled families’ agenda (see Jonathan Portes blog, Channel 4’s FactCheck and for example) is that these criteria do not include anything relating to troubling behaviours, such as crime, anti-social behaviour, child neglect or truancy or substance misuse. Professor Ruth Levitas recently wrote to The Guardian on this subject and stated that:

“None of these constitute behaviours that need government intervention to prevent reoffending. There is no evidence in the analysis of any link to offending. Government rhetoric makes a quite illegitimate and cynical slide from families who undoubtedly have troubles, through troubled families, which suggests they are somehow dysfunctional as families, to families who cause trouble. This is yet another example of government misuse of research and demonisation of the poor and the sick”

Contrast this the infographic above produced by DCLG making a link with domestic violence, with the statement made by David Cameron at the launch event and the statement on the DCLG Troubled Families webpage:

“A troubled family is one that has serious problems – including parents not working, mental health problems, and children not in school – and causes serious problems, such as crime and anti-social behaviour.”


However, in a couple of recent and very interesting developments, the definition of a ‘troubled family’ is beginning to shift to one which is more in line with the policy direction being advocated by the Government. On 29 March 2012, the Department for Education updated a webpage on ‘families with multiple and complex needs’ with the following information:

Multiple and complex needs of families includes a combination of (amongst others):

  • Persistent offending behaviour
  • Persistent anti-social behaviour
  • Prejudiced behaviour
  • Mental health issues
  • Drugs and alcohol issues
  • Domestic violence
  • Safeguarding issues
  • Vulnerability
  • Poverty
  • Debt
  • Worklessness.

This could be a different set of families but there are several links and pages on the DfE website that strongly suggest otherwise. No evidence of further information on how these families have been identified is published on the site, as far as I can tell. Given the concerns regarding the mixing of having problems with causing problems, one might expect the Government to publish any evidence they have in their possession that demonstrated the link between the two.

The ‘Financial framework for the Troubled Familes programme’, produced by the DCLG, states that ‘Troubled Families ‘are households who:

  1. Are involved in crime and anti-social behaviour
  2. Have children not in school
  3. Have an adult on out of work benefits
  4. Cause high costs to the public purse

In other words, a completely different set of criteria to the one which was used to identfiy the families in the first place. The framework also makes a number of assumptions and refers to ‘estimates’ in making the link between families having problems and causing them:

These families almost always have other often long-standing problems which can lead to their children repeating the cycle of disadvantage. One estimate shows that in over a third of troubled families, there are child protection problems. Another estimate suggests that over half of all children who are permanently excluded from school in England come from these families, as do one-in-five young offenders” (my emphases)

No references to the sources of these estimates are provided

So, in summary, it appears that there are at least 3 arguably major problems with the measurement and identification of the 120,000 ‘troubled families’:

  1. The data is 8 years old
  2. There appears to be no evidence linking families experiencing trouble or problems themselves to families causing trouble or problems for others
  3. There appear to be different and fluid terms and definitions across different government departments for the same ‘group’ of families, which will obviously have policy and practice implications.

In coming weeks, we will return to this topic to explore some troubles surrounding the concept of ‘troubled families’ and its (in my view) unfortunate conflation with the child poverty agenda.

Best wishes,


The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 2) can be found here

The Trouble with Troubled Families (Part 3) can be found here


3 responses to “The Trouble with ‘Troubled Families’ (Part 1)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: