New messaging guide: How to talk about debt

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By Joe Cox, Senior Policy Officer (Household Debt) at Debt Justice

The UK is highly unequal. Our economy creates and reinforces power, income, and wealth imbalances along intersecting regional, class, gender and racial lines.

Layered on top of this deep inequality, a cost-of-living crisis is now forcing more of us to borrow, delay paying bills and juggle our finances to try to make ends meet. Until very recently, inflation has been rising much faster than wages, turbo-charging the household debt crisis. 12.8 million people are now behind on bills or finding their debt repayments a heavy financial and emotional burden.

Creating the necessary public support and political will to tackle this crisis requires that we talk about the issue in the right way. Our latest Debt Messaging Guide developed with the New Economy Organising Network, James Robertson and the Public Interest Research Centre is a resource developed with this mission in mind.

The guide suggests several ‘framing principles’ and values for forming a convincing argument for tackling the household debt crisis. Self-determination is a widely held value that can bring a broad group of people onside when talking about debt. People that may not have experienced heavy debt, can often relate to the human drive to pursue our goals, to take care of our family and to access the things we all need to lead our version of a good life. This allows us to set up debt as something that inhibits our journey through life.

It is always vital to challenge the strongly held belief of individual responsibility – that people choose to go into or “fall” into debt. Instead, we should be clear that the debt crisis has been created by government (in)action. Cuts to welfare and public services, lack of affordable housing, skyrocketing prices and suppressed incomes have forced people to borrow money just to pay for the essentials.

The government has set these conditions for the debt traps that so many people are now caught in. People who, with no other choice but to borrow or fall behind on bills, are sitting ducks for extortionate lenders, exploitative ‘debt solution’ mis-sellers and heavy-handed debt collectors.

Due to the social stigma and guilt associated with indebtedness, people can feel a moral responsibility to put their aspirations on hold for years or decades as they try harder and harder to pay off unpayable debt. Debt and mental distress also go hand in hand, creating a vicious cycle as the mental health impacts lead to further financial, social and health difficulties. Elevating personal stories that speak to the damaging effect of the debt trap in people’s own voices is fundamental and can help reduce stigma and isolation.

We should also avoid fatalism by highlighting our victories. Together we have already successfully campaigned to cap the cost of credit and we have driven many exploitative high-cost lenders and ‘rent to own’ businesses out of our communities. People came together, picketed, lobbied and organised to make that happen. This shows us that if we build our collective power and talk about the household debt crisis in a persuasive and powerful way, we can overcome it.

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