Updated: Oct 25, 2019
by Jerry During, Money A+E Co-Founding Director
At least 8 million of us are living with problematic debt and struggling to make ends meet(1), including at least 500,000(2) in London alone – and these are thought to be conservative estimates.
The right support can be pivotal for an individual’s future, but it isn’t unusual to wait up to 1, 2 or even 3 years before seeking help(3). In this blog post I ask: what’s stopping us?
The ‘bubble’ of fear
It may surprise you to learn that, among our advice service clients at Money A+E, those in the deepest debt are often the hardest to reach.
Consider this testimony from Nadine, a previous user of our services, about her experience with rent arrears.
‘You are now in the bubble of fear and anxiety…I don’t want to open letters, because even if it’s not a bank letter, I don’t want to open it…you are in that mental bubble of not knowing what is happening around you, even if it’s a good letter you don’t know. So that fear really cripples your mind.’
It is common for debt to bring about feelings of fear and shame, and even anxiety and depression – making it incredibly difficult to reach out. Picking up the phone or attending an outreach requires huge courage.
The search for support
Unfortunately, making contact with a money advice service may not be the only hurdle to clear for someone in a situation like Nadine's.
At Money A+E, we are frequently forced to turn away people who really need the support of our one-to-one service. It tends to operate at full capacity, and two agencies that were also delivering similar services in inner London have recently closed down.
This state of affairs is borne out by figures discovered by the Money Advice Service. They found that, as a percentage of current supply, unmet demand for face-to-face debt advice is as high as 181% in London(4).
In Newham, Money A+E’s home borough, that number rises to an even more shocking 531%. We find these figures truly alarming.
Accessibility and trust
Going hand in hand with this shortfall in demand is a lack of awareness of where support can be found, as highlighted by the Money Advice Service report ‘Right Place, Right Time’(5).
The report also identifies a lack of trust in services as a reason for not seeking support – as well as concerns over their quality, relevance and impartiality.
This mirrors what we hear on the ground. As our service user Julie described her experience with a traditional advice provider, ‘They only see you for a few minutes and you’re out the door’.
And there is often hesitancy among the communities we serve to disclose personal details for fear the data will end up in the wrong hands.
So what is the best way to break down these barriers of distrust and suspicion? We think that it is actually better to go around them, and offer something different.
By offering our services in partnership with established community groups, we are drawing on the trust that they have already built with the populations they serve.
Education builds resilience
We have to remember that debt support aims at cure, not prevention.
It would be naïve to ignore the fact that household budgets are under intense pressure, and being whittled down at one end by inflated housing and energy costs, and insecure or poorly paid employment at the other. We urgently need more actions like Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign to help lessen the burden on the most stretched.
Yet in the fight to reduce poverty and debt, the importance of improving financial capability should not be overlooked. In fact, Trust 4 London has recommended it as an ‘urgent’ area of focus(6).
One in six UK adults rate their confidence in managing money or their knowledge about financial matters as low(7). And users of the Money A+E one-to-one Advice service in 2016-18 gave the following average scores to the following statements:
· “I am aware of different strategies that can help me deal with my debt” – 3.3/10
· “I feel in control of how I budget, spend and manage my money” – 3.8/10
The outcomes of our services prove that understanding recent benefit changes, knowing how to build a budget and how to access low-cost credit can hugely improve financial well-being.
There is a clear need to empower our communities when it comes to money – and the earlier in life, the better.
Our vision is that nobody has to live with the fear and upheaval of debt.
Getting there is – and will continue to be – a steep uphill climb. A key force driving us up there must be the expansion of support around money and debt, both in terms of crisis advice and of education.
More research is needed into the barriers to accessing advice. The shortfall in supply is well-documented, but we need a better understanding of the issue of trust and how this impacts among disadvantaged communities in particular.
To that end, I’m excited to announce the upcoming Money A+E Evaluation Day on 11 November 2019. This annual event gives our service users the opportunity to share their experience and tell us what trusted support looks like for them.
Attendance is by invitation only, but we’ll be reporting back on our findings of this and other research projects over the coming months. Our hope is to inform the conversation around money advice and education – and in so doing, improve the well-being and financial resilience of so many more.
Jerry During, Co-founding Director, Money A+E
(1) Money Advice Service, ‘Mapping the Unmet Demand for Debt Advice in the UK’, 2018
(2) Step Change, ‘London in the Red’, 2017
(3) Christians Against Poverty, Client Report, 2019
(4) Money Advice Service, ‘Mapping the Unmet Demand for Debt Advice in the UK’, 2018
(5) Money Advice Service, ‘Right Place, Right Time’, 2017
(6) Trust 4 London, ‘Managing the Unmanageable: Debt and Economic Resilience in Newham’, 2019
(7) Financial Conduct Authority, ‘The Financial Lives of Consumers Across the UK’, 2017