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.

The time is right for Basic Income

(Article also posted on LinkedIn)

Life throws those curve balls and you find yourself bouncing in a different direction to that expected. Did you catch me speaking on Victoria Derbyshire a couple of weeks ago? (It’s a great programme, covering all manner of social issues. If you’re interested, I’m on at around 1 hour 10, although the parts before are also worth a watch if you have time:

The story goes; having found myself without an income, and having run out of backup funds, I had to visit the Job Centre and find out about Universal Credit. It’s not great. As a homeowner, I learned I’d only get £291 per month to live on. That’s it. Just over £70 per month. They can’t help with mortgages. This is how so many people have to live – month on month. Little wonder we’re seeing queues at foodbanks and a rise in homelessness.

Speaking out about this on Twitter caught the attention of a BBC researcher and the next day I’m telling a government official that no, UC is not at all fantastic, as she claimed. Despite being a service I’ve paid for via my National Insurance over a career approaching 30 years, I’m treated as though deserving of punishment: commit to spending 35 hours per week seeking work, any work, including zero hours minimum wage work, or we’ll take away the little we’re giving you. Ouch.

One of the many tribulations it causes, that I don’t think occurs to everyone, is social isolation. When you don’t have enough to even cover bills (I toted up my essential bills – I’ve cancelled gym memberships and the like – as around £360 per month. £70 more than I’m given) then joining friends at the pub, going to a quiz night, or even catching the bus to the park is impossible. Without that contact, mental health suffers – which it does anyway, as a result of one’s predicament. Our whole world revolves around money. Without it, we’re outcasts. There’s no place in society for the poor – even the temporarily poor.

Hence my increased interest in Basic Income and social reform. There are better ways to support people when they find themselves without paid work. (I’m not “unemployed” I’m as busy as ever, I’m just not being paid! Working for societal good doesn’t tend to pay the bills.) We can do better. We can help people to flourish whether they’re being paid or not. People don’t cease to have value because they’ve been made redundant (and what an awful term that is!)

People contribute to society in all sorts of ways. The research around giving people unconditional money (there are several ways to do this, and to fund it) evidences that people don’t sit around watching daytime TV drinking beer. People want to be useful. People work to supplement what is, after all, only a basic income. They start up businesses – perhaps fulfilling life-long passions. They study. They get more involved with their community. They volunteer. They spend more time with the kids – who then do better at school. They adopt healthier lifestyles. They are less like to get into debt and more likely to shop. Surely this is a no brainer?

I hope you’ll join me in my crusade and help spread the word about Basic Income. I’m organising a conference in November in my home town of Southend on Sea. The Director of The Citizens’ Basic Income Trust – Dr Malcolm Torry – has offered to speak if he’s available. I hope to get a range of speakers – academics and change-leaders – to talk about the ways society could be. If you would like to be involved, please get in touch. I’m especially interested in women speakers as they’re still too scarce at conferences.

As Dr Torry said to me – it may seem radical, but actually Basic Income could be achieved fairly easily. It just takes a few tweaks, and a big change in mindset.

Let’s change society together for the benefit of us all.

Further reading:

The Citizens’ Basic Income Trust

Basic Income UK

BIEN – Basic Income Earth Network

Money for everyone: Why we need a Citizen’s Income – Dr Malcolm Torry

Basic Income and How we can make it happen – Guy Standing

Basic Income Research (from BIEN)