‘The only difference between us is the rate of interest we pay’: Debt and Mothers in the North East of England

Date Posted: Monday 20th July 2020

This blog post explores the lived experience of chronic debt for women in a borough in the North East of England, the factors influencing it, and the health consequences of living with debt. Written by Amy Greer Murphy who is a social scientist who uses qualitative methods to understand how public policies impact everyday lived experience.

High levels of household debt are a common feature of everyday life for women living in deprived communities. Ongoing austerity measures, the roll-out of Universal Credit and most recently the Covid-19 lockdown have distinct gendered dimensions. As a result, the mental health burden women experience is likely to increase. In this blog post I examine the everyday lived experiences of household debt for a group of women from the North East of England.

Research I carried out with mothers in 2015 and 2016 focussed on the lived experience of austerity and health consequences for mothers living in a borough in the North East of England with some of the widest health inequalities in the country. Health inequalities – differences in life expectancy – are caused by social determinants, one of which is access to money. The financial burden of chronic debt respondents experienced compounded other inequalities they were experiencing and had tangible effects on their mental and physical health.

In my research, participants discussed the presence of high levels of household debt in their everyday lives. They described numerous overlapping structural reasons for this experience of debt – the lack of quality, well-paying work, conditionality in the benefits system and prolonged time spend in caring roles and not earning. There was a sense of inevitability in acquiring more debt (much of it high interest) to provide for unexpected expenses such as funerals and events like Christmas and birthdays.

Respondents were very much aware of both the difficulties and stereotypes people from deprived areas had to deal with. She spoke candidly about this, as the following quote illustrates –

‘The only difference between ‘us and them’ is that they get their credit from a credit card and the bank, whereas she has to go to doorstop and payday lenders. The only difference between us is the rate of interest we pay’ (Anne)

One respondent’s family, who lived on a low income, were at risk of experiencing funeral poverty. This funeral poverty has been highlighted by Church Action on Poverty and occurs when the death of a loved one plunges a family into serious and long-term debt.

‘Never have a chance to save anything. His sister has just passed away. We did help out last time, with my husband’s mother. We all had to give a donation for the headstone. I need a pair of shoes for the funeral. You can guarantee, they always end up in a pub. There’ll be sandwiches, soup in the pub after, we’ll have to pay towards that. Nothing left after that’ (Pat)

Mental health issues were discussed frequently and linked often to money worries. Mothers described a sense of insecurity and disempowerment, as their struggling with money felt outside of their control. It was not the result of failure or wrongdoing on their part, but of complex structural factors like the imposition of the ‘bedroom tax’, or closure of local factories. The debt was identified by respondents as a source of stress, worry and anxiety. For some, it was often in the background, causing low-level stress –

‘You don’t realise sometimes, what a pressure it’s putting on your life’ (Caroline)

For others, managing high levels of debt and navigating a complex benefits system, with disabilities, complex health issues and inadequate supports could lead to periods of crisis –

‘We’re managing ok now, but last year, we asked for help, we went to the housing for help, all these people for help, and nobody would help us. I suffer from serious depression, so my mental state was just on the floor. All these things they put into place, you get with one hand and it’s taken with the other’ (Brenda)

The experiences outlined in this post are in many ways gendered – the unequal dynamics within households meant mothers did the everyday managing of the home, did most of the care and domestic work and took care of the household budget and managed the debt. This compounded the experiences of poor mental health lower income respondents felt.

As communities and families continue to manage during the period of the current Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, we can expect a continuing strain on parents as they struggle to manage their debt. Families with children and women key workers and frontline workers are in a particularly precarious position with regards to debt, and anxiety levels are rising. This pandemic has widened inequalities, and will have long-lasting effects on health, wellbeing and economic resilience in poorer communities, particularly in the North East.