Fear vs. Trust: re-imagining debt support

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.

Me and Nadine, who now works at Money A+E teaching financial skills.

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

Our money adviser, Jeredine, in action

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 em