Debt: the unwelcome guest
This guest blog is written by Emma Jackson. Emma is National Director Scotland for Christian’s Against Poverty, leading the work in Scotland of this UK wide debt and anti-poverty charity. Emma speaks widely on the subject of debt, poverty and financial inclusion and is also a contributor for BBC Radio Scotland’s Thought for the Day, often found talking about hope.
Preparing for Christmas should be a time of excitement and anticipation for families. Yet for tens of thousands across Scotland, they will be carrying the heavy burden of an extra ‘guest’. Problem debt. Taking up a space, eroding dignity and bringing with it a whole host of stresses and strains this festive season as red letters land, demanding phone calls ring and unexpected knocks at the door beckon.
Problem debt is defined as people who say keeping up with their bills and credit commitments is a ‘heavy burden’, or that they have missed payments for bills in three or more of the last six months. Even prior to the pandemic, Scottish Government statistics indicated that lone parent households were consistently the most likely to be in problem debt. At Christians Against Poverty (CAP), lone parents are one of the largest groups accessing debt help, making up 34% of new clients accessing debt help in Scotland in April, May and June of 2022. Echoing the findings from OPFS Living without a Lifeline Report, with debt being a common thread among nearly all participants from the research.
Problem debt is an isolating place, dominated by fear and relentless pressure. Debt takes root, mentally and physically, just like that unwanted guest, demanding time, energy and a constant draining presence. Unfortunately, shame and embarrassment, allows problem debt to stay much longer than it ever should with 1 in 4 CAP clients waiting up to 3 years before seeking debt help (On the Edge, 2022). Problem debt pushes people to the very edge. Devastatingly, over a third of CAP clients report that problem made them seriously consider or attempt suicide.
Angela*, a single parent to two teenage boys told CAP that debt was all consuming. ‘I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, my mental health was really starting to suffer. My mind was constantly thinking how am I going to get through tomorrow…. it was just horrendous.’
Her experiences are sadly replicated across our nation and a growing number of single parent households are being pulled under because of problem debt. In November, the Scottish Women’s Budget Group and the Poverty Alliance produced a report: “It’s hard work being poor” Women’s Experiences of the Cost-of-Living Crisis in Scotland.
In this research, women on low incomes shared their experiences of poverty and reported struggling to repay existing debts and accumulating more debt because of rising costs, sometimes using cost-of-living payments to repay debt. It was found that specific groups of women are particularly struggling, notably lone parents.
One participant, Idia, shared via diary entries she often was going hungry. A lone parent, and asylum seeker, she wondered how she is expected to buy food with costs rising week by week and detailed the stress of not being able to afford snacks for her children.
Problem debt often happens due to unexpected circumstances. Job loss, bereavement, relationship breakdown, ill health. But increasingly and especially for single parents, it’s happening due to insufficient income. For an increasing number of families there simply isn’t enough money to cover everyday essentials that we all need and therefore debt becomes a predictable outcome. One parent who took part in the OPFS research said:
“If I borrow to get through the month, I start off the next month with even less and the cycle continues. It feels like an impossible puzzle sometimes and a massive stress that weighs me down and holds me back from enjoying life with my sons.”
At CAP, broken budgets are on the rise and over half of the clients that we are working with have an unsustainable budget. These households don’t have sufficient income to cover essential outgoings and therefore a very high likelihood of both accruing further debt before going debt free or going back into debt after a solution is found. An unwinnable game.
In a just and compassionate society, we cannot be content with this. Both in terms of the depth and scale of the issue that debt is for lone parent households and the systemic issues that are keeping families trapped there. Living with dignity means having sufficient income to afford the essentials. Like OPFS are calling for, justice means we need investment in a social security system that prevents child poverty, treating single parent families with respect.
And while justice demands we must ensure that all our households in Scotland, including lone parents, have sufficient income, compassion compels us to act now to support those in the most precarious situations this Christmas. Support must be targeted to those who need it most and the free debt help that is widely available across Scotland made known. No one should face the burden of debt alone, at Christmas or indeed ever.