How disabled people are turning to payday loans to cope with benefit cuts

As their benefits are cut and their bills - for care, council tax, food, and the like - remain the same, disabled people are turning to payday loans, credit cards or even illegal lenders to try and make ends meet.

What happens to people when their benefits are cut? It seems an obvious question to ask (if we do something, the consequences of it should, at a minimum, be considered). What are the consequences, then, of dismantling people’s benefits? If, say, you have a debilitating disability that means you can’t earn a wage and your housing benefit is cut while your council tax is increased. The need to eat, be housed, and have the lights on doesn’t go away. Nor, let’s assume, does your disability or the multiple extra needs that come with it. Money to pay for those things still has to come from somewhere. That seems like basic economics. If we can agree human beings need to eat and a disabled person who, say, can’t lift themselves onto a toilet, needs (paid) support to do that, we can agree that removing the money that helps them meet those needs (either directly or by charging them elsewhere and thereby leaving them unable to pay for the need in question) would leave them having to find that money somewhere else. So where do they go? Where are disabled people going for money to live on?

Payday loan companies, according to new research by the disability charity Scope. Or credit cards or even illegal lenders. In fact, half of disabled people have used credit cards or loans to pay for basics like food or clothes in the past twelve months. 

Susan Donnelly, 54, is in £7,000 worth of debt. She’s unable to earn a wage due to severe osteoporosis, emphysema, asthma and a digestive condition that means she can’t eat solid foods, and when her benefits wouldn’t stretch, found herself turning to loan companies.

“When you get your social security letter it tells you on there the amount of money the government says you need to live on,” Susan tells me. “But by the time you take out all my bills, I have nothing to live on.”

The cycle of borrowing and interest soon hit. Refused further loans because she couldn’t pay back what she owed, and needing to eat and pay bills, Susan turned to credit cards and doorstep loans.

She’s taken out a £900 loan from a doorstep loan company. They’re charging her £1,080 of interest. She has to pay back almost £2,000 over two years; over twice what she borrowed. The debt is simply multiplying.

“I have £400 worth of rent arrears and the landlord is threatening bailiffs,” she says. “I can’t afford to put my heating on. I don’t use my oven any more. I’m scared to run up any bills. By 7pm, I’m huddled up in bed with my dog.”

Susan was struggling before the benefit changes hit, but is now losing £70 a week. She lives alone in a two-bed house in London and the bedroom tax means she’s now losing £12 housing benefit a week. Her "spare" room is filled with medical equipment and a bed for a carer when she’s too ill to cope by herself. Another £4 a week goes on a network alarm. (She’s been found unconscious twice before. Needing the emergency button though, as is the case with all needs, doesn’t mean she can afford it.) 

She was previously exempt from council tax but now has to pay over £12 a month for that too. Her care bill takes another chunk, with social services wanting £57 a week towards her care since the cuts came in in April. Her incontinence pads – £10 a week – used to be paid for by her health authority but she now has to find that money herself.

“How am I meant to pay these bills?” she says. “Realistically, I can’t afford my incontinence pads as well as the council tax.”

In seems almost inevitable, when you hear Susan talk, that people in her situation would turn to credit cards or payday loans.  Desperate people do desperate things, and as the Government makes £28bn worth of disability cuts while stalling on tougher regulation of Wonga and the like that fill the gap, there’s an industry more than ready to take advantage of that desperation. More than 30,000 people with payday loans have sought debt advice from just one charity, StepChange, in the first six months of 2013 – almost as many as in the whole of 2012

Disabled people, though, are three times more likely to draw on doorstep loans than non-disabled people, Scope have now found. Understanding the scale of the problem for the wider public perhaps makes that fact all the more alarming.

Talking about the findings, Richard Hawkes, Chief Executive of Scope, says it comes down to what type of society we want to live in. He’s got a point. Call me a bleeding heart liberal, but personally, I’d like to live in a society where disabled people can eat without taking out a payday loan. And where the benefit system isn’t designed in a way that almost actively encourages it.

“In 2013, if we want disabled people to live independently and pay the bills we cannot take billions of pounds of support away, particularly while disabled people are financially vulnerable, and less able to build up their own financial safety net,” Hawkes stresses. “The Government can no longer ignore the big picture of its welfare reforms. It must start focusing on policies that build disabled people’s financial resilience, so that they do not have to turn to risky credit and face slipping into debt.”

Sometimes credit can be good, of course. It can help (disabled) people deal with fluctuations in income or fund emergency expenses, as Scope are the first to say. But there are risks associated with credit – such as people like Susan using them to pay for everyday essentials or at times of distress, when they may overestimate their ability to make repayments, or, are fully aware they can’t, but simply have no other choice but to borrow anyway. Disabled people are disproportionately exposed to these risks. They find it harder to access low cost credit than if they weren’t disabled – a cruel irony when being disabled means it’s probably needed more. (Less than one in five disabled people use an arranged overdraft, compared to one in three non-disabled people. Worrying, yes. But this isn’t really surprising against a backdrop where disabled people are less likely to even have a bank account.)

Many banks are unwilling to lend against benefits that they perceive as unreliable. As one disabled man told Scope anonymously, it’s “virtually impossible to get any credit when on benefits... Trying to get a credit card is a nightmare...they are geared for people who work…”

This has only worsened since the Social Fund was abolished this April and replaced with new local authority welfare schemes. The Social Fund, among other things, provided Crisis Loans – interest-free loans to help people meet immediate short-term needs. With the localisation of the Social Fund, there has been no statutory duty on local authorities to provide access to equivalent forms of credit or grants, or to ring-fence budgets in order to make such provisions. This will affect 844,360 disabled people who may lose up to £43.2m in Crisis Loans, according to cumulative impact analysis conducted by Scope and Demos.

Clearly, the lack of credit options for disabled people is a different problem than the fact they are using credit cards or payday loans in order to be able to eat. Disabled people are using credit to meet daily living expenses because their income is, and always has been, disproportionately low and their needs disproportionately high – and benefits, the framework offering some (consistent) support, is now being pulled away. But that people who are disabled are less likely to be able to get low cost credit when they need it is part of a wider climate of financial instability for a certain group in society; one of exclusion, where options are limited, debt is deep, and "choice" is now a trick of a word that means high risk, high interest loans or no food to eat. Or, as Susan put it, paying council tax or buying incontinence pads.

There’s a picture built of people who are most likely to face financial pressures, who are less likely to have secure, low-cost safety nets in place, and who are now the ones being left to take the brunt of benefit cuts.

Linda Isted, of the charity Debt Advice Foundation, tells me that with the level of current focus on benefit cuts in the media, concern about reduction in benefit income is often a trigger for people to seek help. “In many cases, though, there is existing debt, sometimes at an unmanageable level, and so any reduction in income is an extra factor in what is already a problem debt situation,” she adds.

“I had no idea [these benefit changes] were coming into action,” Susan tells me when we discuss how quickly things worsened for her. She was already getting into debt by taking out doorstep loans, and as the multiple benefit cuts hit her in April, that debt just spread.

She has a £600 gas bill waiting, and a £100 electric. The bits of paper keep coming through the door, she says, but she can’t do anything with them.

“I can’t physically pay,” she tells me. “I’ve barely got enough money for food let alone anything else. I’m living inside these four walls. I’ve got nothing.”

She gives a little laugh at a couple of points as we talk, as if at this stage, there is nothing else she can do. Her pancreatic illness is worsening with the stress, she says, and she can barely think about the money she owes the doorstep loan company.

“I can’t do anything but cry [when I think about the interest],” she tells me. “I can just see myself getting deeper and deeper in debt and then bailiffs coming in and taking the furniture. That’s the only way I can see of possibly getting out of this. It’s horrific.”

If you are struggling with your debts, you can contact a free, independent debt advice charity such as Debt Advice Foundation.  Their helpline is 0800 043 40 50, or you can go to www.debtadvicefoundation.org

What do you do when your housing benefit is cut while your council tax is increased? Photo: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle