Many of us spend a good deal of our lives in debt. Mortgages, student loans, credit cards, but for most of us that debt is manageable. For those who face unmanageable debt, the situation is quite different.
The link between debt and poor mental health is well documented – the impact of debt on children is not. That is why The Debt Trap, published last week by the Children's Society and Step Change, and accompanied by a high-profile campaign, is to be welcomed.
Last week I attended the launch of the report. Many of its findings are truly shocking and should give us all pause for thought. In one of the richest countries in the world 2.4 million of our children are living in homes with problem debt with an additional 2.9 million families with dependent children have struggled to pay their bills over the past 12 months. And problem debt in families with children has an unquestionable impact on children's mental health and wellbeing.
One in five of those children living in households with problem debt report being bullied and half report feeling embarrassed about not having the things their peers have. Fifty-eight per cent of these children say they worry about their family's financial situation. As actor Brian Cox, reflecting on his own experience points out, poverty and debt in childhood leaves lifelong scars.
The report concludes that there are measures central and local government, creditors and third sector organisations, could take to help address this problem. These include giving struggling families breathing space – an extended period of protection from default charges, mounting interest, collections and enforcement action – ensuring local authorities have a debt collection strategy that includes measures to address the impact of collection on children. Also expecting creditors to have early warning systems in place so they are aware when customers are facing financial difficulty. I know that many charities and housing associations are really worried about the impact the introduction of Universal Credit will have on some families, the report therefore recommends allowing families to opt in to alternative payment arrangements. It also calls for more savings schemes for children and for the role of Credit Unions to be further supported to do this.
In a political climate where politicians wax lyrical about social mobility and initiatives such as the pupil premium and free childcare are lauded as important contributory factors, I despair at the lack of a holistic approach to improving the life chances of our children.
This is an important and long overdue campaign, one which I trust will fire the imagination of all those of us working with, or on behalf of children and young people. I personally will be doing what I can to support it. I trust you will too.
Linda Jack is a member of the Parliamentary Policy Committee for Education, Young People and Families, and former member of the Federal Policy Committee