Community-based debtors prison

A local foodbank posted on Facebook a spreadsheet showing a typical budget of a person in need of their services. I was horrified that the majority of commentators felt the person Wasn’t Trying Hard Enough. Sky TV? What are they doing with that when they’re struggling to afford food?! They have a phone? Broadband? These are luxuries and if you’re in crisis, you can jolly well do without.

The comments were condescending and patronising: people experiencing financial difficulty are the Other. They are not me. I’m sensible and smart. I would never get myself into that sort of a pickle. I’m simply better than Those People.

People in debt or financial crisis are deemed too stupid to budget properly. As a couple of people helpfully suggested; the way out of poverty is to be educated in how to manage the pennies scraped together from benefits and/or five minimum-wage jobs.

And whilst people are going through this education programme (assuming support is available for them) they will reside in the new-fangled Community-based Debtors Prison.

They don’t need a one-bed flat, a room in a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) will do fine. They’ll have to move out and sell what possessions they have (yes, even if they’ve accrued them whilst working for more money, or over decades, yes that record collection is a luxury – it needs to go). Pets will be removed and rehomed. No money to feed yourself – no money for companion animals. No phone, certainly no laptops or tablets, no paid-for TV. If you have a large TV, sell it for a small one. That’ll do you for now. You need a computer and broadband for Universal Credit and job searching? Go to the library or job centre. You can’t expect to have a social life when you’re in financial crisis. Your debtors must be paid first. So restricted freedom for you till you sort yourself out.

Now on you get with your hand-written budget spreadsheets. You only have yourself to blame for your poverty and only you can get yourself out of it.

Just how long is this sentence, I wonder? How long would you need to sit in your empty room, alone, working on your finances until you got out of debt? How long would it take to go from an existence of surviving to flourishing? And how much longer after that would it take to get you back to the point you were at before your punishment started? Back to having a mortgage, a home of your own, your own furniture, art, vinyl collection, books, clothes? Back to feeling like you have things to look forward to?

If anyone’s aware of any research, I’d be very interested to know how many people enter into a situation like this and overcome their problems and thrive, versus those that sink into depression and whose situation worsens or, at best, stagnates.

Debt is big business. To the tune of billions. It’s not only people in receipt of benefits or on a low income that become beleaguered by debt. Credit companies can set their own interest levels with some charging 1000% or more interest, £75 parking fines (dubious in the first place) can escalate almost indefinitely – rising to £thousands in some cases, banks can charge ridiculous fines: overdrawn by £5? We’ll charge £30. We had to bounce a direct debit as it would have taken you overdrawn by £1 – we’ll charge you £20 each time. And no you can’t have an overdraft because your credit is so poor. You’ll have to take out credit cards to improve your score.

And so it goes on.

Debt begets debt and the less money you have, the more expensive life gets. Struggling to pay your gas bill? We’ll install a meter that costs loads more. And we’ll charge you even if you use no gas in an effort to save money.

Having debts and money worries is like having the Sword of Damocles constantly at your neck. It overwhelms you. You come to fear every ring of the phone, every letter, every knock at the door. Debt collection agencies are trained in intimidation tactics. They want you to feel scared and small. Hence the people they send to your door are 6ft tall men.

Debt and financial difficulties erode resilience and depression blooms. The more depressed you become, the harder everything seems. Sitting down to create a budget is a sensible thing to do. But when you’re struggling, being asked to sort out your finances is akin to being asked to resolve the equation to unify quantum mechanics with general relativity.

The debt industry has much to answer for. And just look at the marketing for credit companies and gambling sites – who is their target audience? People already struggling with money. They know what they’re doing. They’re making millions out of misery.

Yes, people can help themselves – if they receive good support and are in the right mind space to do so. And yes, council tax needs to be paid and credit agencies need to be repaid. But the way the systems work at the moment is, frankly, bollocks.

Debt does not equal moral or intellectual failings.

And before you propose a community-based debtors prison for someone else, ask yourself how you’d be impacted if you had to give up everything. Don’t say it wouldn’t happen to you. That’s what everyone thinks, before it does.

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