Troubled to trouble maker? Misrepresenting the ‘120,000 troubled families’ in England

(This post is by Will Murcott Lecturer at BCU) With great interest I again see statistics being used to marginalise and foster unhelpful beliefs about the most vulnerable in society.

I welcome the injection of thought and funds into helping those in need, but as shown in a report by Ruth Levitas of the University of Bristol (full report is here, the figures being touted appear to be used in a misleading and misrepresentative fashion.

Thankfully, as a non-statistician, the More or Less programme on Radio 4 explains the case of the 120,000 very nicely (

Ruth Levitas found that the figure of 120,000 problem families originated from research in 2004 which surveyed disadvantaged families, not disruptive or criminal. This found 2% of the studied population had 5 or more out of 7 characteristics. These were:


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


The overall figure was adjusted (i.e. reduced) and made relevant for just England. Ruth Levitas argues that this could in fact be a vast underestimation of the actual number, as most families with these problems drop out of such lengthy studies. The ’120,000’ figure also stands alone quoted without it’s sample error. Which in this instance is +/- 3%. Meaning a figure ranging from minus families to 300,000!

Now, where things get a bit cloudy is in the shifting of focus from ‘troubles’ to ‘trouble maker’. A second government report (found here was then brought into the mix. Part of the definition for troubled families included families that are involved in crime and antisocial behaviour. The immediate effect of this was to then associate a family which has significant problems to one which is criminal, as David Cameron demonstrates in a 2011 speech:

That’s why today, I want to talk about troubled families. Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.

Recently the ‘troubled-families tsar’ Louise Casey interviewed ‘over a dozen’ of these families and found:

The prevalence of child sexual and physical abuse and sometimes child rape was striking and shocking. Some discussed it as if as it was almost expected and just a part of what they had experienced in life. Children often had not been protected by their parents. In many of the families the sexual abuse repeated itself in the next generation … There were also incidents where families talked about incest.

I welcome the raising of interfamilial abuse into the mainstream agenda and the potential cycle this has and its devastating impact on people’s lives. However, I fear that these associations will distort the necessary understanding of families in need of significant support from children’s mental health services, adult mental health services and social services. The associations made by linking poverty, crime and abuse and ‘identifying’ these families in way that gives the impression that there is a department somewhere with a list of families misrepresents this and those that we aim to work with.

We do need to be able focus and respond to families that are the most vulnerable, especially when it comes to early intervention of mental health services. But to do so under misleading evidence of whom and where these are will not help them or the understanding that the public has of these issues.

3 thoughts on “Troubled to trouble maker? Misrepresenting the ‘120,000 troubled families’ in England

  1. Can I just say thank you to Will for a succint and excellent summary of the classic manipulation of data, in this case about very vulnerable people, by politicians for their own agenda, the real issues as Will rightly points out is how we can help these damaged families when they enter mental health services as clearly they all to frequently do. Vicky Clarke

  2. I don’t like the term troubled, but yes a majority of people do have at least one of them issues in there family home, it doesn’t make them vunerable. My dad has a very low income yet has to surport me and my mother because we both suffer with mental illnesses, i’m on ESA but she isn’t because she knows the procedure in which the job centre pressurises you to work and it scares her. My dad has worked exetremely hard since the age of 17 so i wouldn’t see him as vunerable or troubled i’d see him as strong.

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