Families running on empty

02 October 2018

Are we turning a blind eye to the spiralling levels of unsecure personal debt used ‘to make ends meet’ among vulnerable households?

“Poverty is unnecessary” – is a striking quote from Muhammad Yunus - one that often fleets in and out of my mind when working at the GCPH. The phrase has resonated especially strongly during the past few months of research and writing this latest briefing paper which explores the public health implications of the current spiralling levels of unsecure personal debt in the UK.

The motivation behind this paper was to shine a light on an important aspect of contemporary poverty, largely ignored and overlooked to date. This briefing paper builds upon our previous papers about in-work poverty and payday loans - the take home messages in these publications were that poverty affects working populations and the nature of low income, insecure jobs mean that many households need access to credit to smooth unforeseen shortfalls in income.

This explains the high levels of demand for payday loans, and unsecure personal debt such as credit cards, overdrafts and store cards. The evidence reviewed in this briefing paper makes clear the risks to public health; those with unsecure personal debt are significantly more likely to have mental disorders compared with the wider population and there are also proven links to worsened physical health.

Worryingly as described in the current briefing paper, unsecure UK personal debt is now at an unprecedented high and is predicted to rise still higher. It also appears from qualitative evidence that the usage of this form of debt has changed.

Prior to the 2008 economic recession credit cards tended to be for large purchases such as white goods, TVs or home repairs or even holidays. At present, the ever increasing mountain of debt in the UK is used to pay for food, rent and household utilities. This paints a bleak picture of personal debt being used as a toxic safety net and of families running on empty and really struggling to get by.

Multi-agency, person-centred ‘debt care pathways’ are described in the briefing paper and are incredibly important in protecting and supporting the mental, physical and financial health of vulnerable borrowers. The debt care pathways need explicating further and key partners such as GPs, social landlords and money advice agencies need support in developing and enhancing them. An obvious omission from narratives covered in the briefing paper is the role of banks and financial institutions in supporting those experiencing problem debt.

The demand for unsecure personal debt among vulnerable populations is rooted in working and non-working poverty. Appropriate anti-poverty policy options such as the implementation of a national living wage or universal basic income should be priority considerations, among others. Poverty is cruel, unfair and inhumane. To see vulnerable households amassing unmanageable and stressful levels of debt in order to make ends meet is also wrong.

If as Yunus says; “poverty is unnecessary” and preventable, I often wonder as to the types of changes, action and leadership necessary to get us collectively moving towards eradicating poverty. It is my hope that by highlighting important issues such as those presented in this briefing paper (spiralling unsecure debt, financial distress and the impacts to health and wellbeing) that we can use this evidence even within small steps on the way along this journey, to support arguments and to inform action, ultimately, to change lives for the better.


About the author

Chris Harkins Public Health Programme Manager


Chris’ role contributes to several of the Centre’s areas of work and involves taking forward research within community-based settings. In particular Chris leads on evaluating the impacts of community-based programmes and interventions; including assessing their contributions to addressing health and other inequalities. Chris is leading the evaluation of Sistema Scotland. He is also responsible for research and evaluation concerning approaches to community engagement, empowerment, participation and local democratic processes including participatory budgeting. Since Summer 2020 Chris has been supporting evidence-based pandemic community recovery efforts, as a member of Glasgow City Council's Social Recovery Task Force

Chris has published a variety of reports and outputs concerning community-based partnership approaches and social regeneration. He also contributes to the Centre’s inequalities across the life course theme and has published work relating to the population health impacts of in-work poverty and payday loans, moving forward within this theme Chris is conducting research into unsecure debt, health and wellbeing.

Chris’ background is in Social Science, Medical Science and IT; he is an experienced researcher and evaluator and has worked directly within NHS, Local Authority and academic settings. He has also worked extensively with the Scottish Government and a variety of third sector organisations over the past 20 years, not least in his contributions to adult literacy projects within Glasgow City and the evaluation of the Have a Heart Paisley National Demonstration Project. Chris lectures at Glasgow Caledonian University and is an Honorary Researcher with the University of Glasgow.

Read all articles by Chris Harkins