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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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.