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The lived experience of being in debt to the Government

Anna Hughes, explores the findings of the Trussell Trust's recent government debt report

Anna Hughes

Policy Officer at the Trussell Trust

Posted April 19, 2022

The Trussell Trust’s Policy Officer, Anna Hughes, explores the findings of their recent ‘Debt to government, deductions and destitution’ report.

Our latest State of Hunger report revealed that debt to central and local government plays a significant role in pushing people into destitution and towards food banks. In mid-2020, nearly half of all people referred to food banks in the Trussell Trust network were in debt to the Department for Work Pensions (DWP)- a significant rise on previous years.

This shocking statistic prompted us to undertake a research project, with the help of Humankind, working with people who have experience of being in debt to the government to discover more about their experiences. Central to the project was supporting the research participants to develop ideas that would address the way government debt can drive people into destitution.

Why people are in debt to the government

Low levels of income, particularly through the benefit system, means that too many people are at risk of being unable to afford the essentials we all need to eat, stay warm, and keep clean. The design of the system is compounding the problem. For example, the option of an advance payment to cover the five-week wait for the first payment of Universal Credit means that many people begin their claim already in debt to the government. This, as well as historic tax credit overpayments and council tax arrears, are deducted automatically from people’s Universal Credit payments reducing incomes further.

Project participants also shared how mental or physical health issues, social isolation, digital exclusion or low literacy, having dependents, housing issues, and other forms of debt were key ‘drivers’ that led to taking on a government debt. The debt spiral can then be catalysed by ‘trigger events’, such as a significant life change, an unavoidable cost, or a deduction from their benefits. The driver and trigger event combine to take a person from ‘just managing’ their situation to being ‘out of control’; leaving them with no other option but to take on debt to help meet essential costs.

The experience of being in debt to the government

It is revealing that participants in this project said they initially saw the government as a better option than private lenders because they are interest-free. Another reason government debt was seen as a better option is that it would avoid the potential embarrassment of having to borrow from family or friends. Unfortunately, the actual experience of being in debt to the government fell far short of expectations.

Participants reported that they felt the system did not and would not help them through this challenging time. There is also a huge variation in people’s experience of the repayment system. While some people, for example, were given the opportunity to choose repayment terms, others were not. This lack of consistency left people confused and disempowered.

Common experiences included:

  • Interactions characterised by a lack of information, explanation, and notice regarding the debt.
  • Communication was difficult and often made people feel judged. This in turn created practical and emotional barriers to engaging with the DWP, which generated a culture of avoidance that continues beyond the debt.
  • Navigating the system was particularly difficult when participants wanted to adjust their repayments. Some who had affordability assessments conducted by the DWP reflected that they did not adequately account for the whole of people’s lives, especially when compared to those used by the private sector.

The impact of debt on people’s lives

A highly significant consequence of debt was the impact on mental health. The general sentiment was that people repaying debts to government lived in ‘survival mode’ instead of living unrestricted lives; their debts impacted on their approach to life in ways that left deep scars.

All participants also experienced other multiple financial and emotional impacts, including:

  • Not being able to afford essentials like food
  • Falling behind on other payments such as utilities and rent
  • Taking on further debt to pay current debt
  • Being unable to get into employment for example, by not being able to afford the bus fare to attend a job interview
  • Constantly worrying about whether they are going to be able to make ends meet
  • Triggering or worsening mental and physical health conditions
  • Impact on the way people see themselves for example, feeling like a failure or a bad parent
  • Feeling isolated as they can’t afford to see friends and family, or trapped in relationships for fear of financial repercussions.

The solutions

Based on their experiences, the group developed proposals under three themes:

  1. Prevention: Changes need to be made to the benefits system to prevent debt in the first place. Examples of solutions included ending built-in debt (such as the five week wait), ensuring benefits are sufficient to meet essential costs, greater flexibility and care when managing overpayments, and greater support for mental health.
  2. Harm reduction: The government should ensure that its debt management processes consistently embody the principles of clarity - providing all the information and options in a timely way, flexibility - giving people options that work with their individual needs, and respect - treating people in a non-judgmental way, showing understanding and empathy.
  3. Moving out of debt: The government should offer periodic reviews of repayment plans, signpost to independent advocates and peer counselling, and take steps to provide support and guidance for those who can move people from benefits to employment.

Finally, one of the most important things highlighted by this research is the power of developing participatory solutions. Being inclusive and involving people who are in debt to government, will be an important factor in changing the situation and enabling people to repay their debt and regain control over their lives.

The project has brought a close focus on the individual experiences of people at the sharp end of government and adds to the growing body of research in this area, including this report from the Money Advice Trust.

The Trussell Trust will continue to work with partners and research participants to push for policy changes that will address the way government debt drives people into destitution.

The report and recommendations are available to read in full here.

Anna Hughes

Policy Officer at the Trussell Trust

Anna Hughes is a Policy Officer at The Trussell Trust focusing on UK-wide policy development. Anna joined the charity in 2021, having previously worked for Law Centre NI on social security policy. The Trussell Trust supports a nationwide network of food banks to provide emergency food and support people locked in poverty, and campaign for change to end the need for food banks in the UK. View all posts from Anna Hughes.

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