Why your interview matters: Citizens Advice

“To improve our services we need a good understanding of real people’s experiences and the different things that affect their lives,” says Joe Lane, Policy Researcher from Citizens Advice.

Citizens Advice help thousands of people to resolve their legal, money and a huge variety of other issues by providing free, independent and confidential advice every year. Citizens Advice used data from Understanding Society to look at the impact of debt on people’s lives in a report called A debt effect?

Question and Answers

Could you tell us more about your role at Citizens Advice?

I work on household debt and financial services and this involves taking the experiences of our clients who come to us for advice and the data that our advisors collect in order to inform and influence policy decisions.

Why did you use Understanding Society data?

We wanted to measure the effects of unmanageable and high levels of debt in people’s lives. Understanding Society provided a unique source of longitudinal data which meant we could look at people’s situations in one year, compare them to similar people, e.g. same region and then look at how their situations had changed in five years’ time. This meant we could look at how debt has affected people’s lives over time and whether it had caused issues like family breakdown.

What were your key findings from the report?

  • One in ten private renters have debts worth six months of their income, nearly twice the proportion among people with a mortgage (10% compared to 6%)
  • One in seven of 20–29 year olds have more than six months’ income in debt, twice the figure for 30–39 year olds (14% compared to 7%)

Beyond the financial strain that debt causes, we looked at how that debt relates to other problems in people’s lives; unemployment, low pay, poor physical health, and poor mental health.

We found that those with below average mental health were:

  • Over 20% more likely to have unsecured debts
  • Twice as likely to be behind on a household bill
  • Nearly two thirds more likely to be behind on their council tax

What survey questions did you use?

  • Do you and your family/partner keep up with bills and regular debt repayments?
  • Sometimes people are not able to pay every household bill when it falls due. May I ask, are you up to date with all your household bills such as electricity, gas, water rates, telephone and other bills or are you behind with any of them?
  • I would now like to ask you about any other financial commitments you may have apart from mortgages. For which, if any, of these items do you currently owe any money?
  • In general, would you say your health is…
  • During the past 4 weeks, how much of the time have you had any of the following problems with your work or other regular daily activities as a result of any emotional problems (such as feeling depressed or anxious)?

What difference does this research make?

It is supporting work that looks at how we can best provide financial advice to people with money problems. This research shows that problems with debt can lead to larger consequences in people’s lives; so the earlier we can help, the less likely bigger problems will arise. For example, if you give people debt advice early on, you could help improve their mental health five years later; this is good for them and for the Government who won’t have to pay for extra healthcare later on.

What’s your message to our participants?

People who want to improve policies and services need a good understanding of real people’s experiences and the different things that affect their lives. Large surveys that happen over time are a unique way to do that in an unbiased way. If we don’t have Understanding Society, people can make assertions about things that are important and that makes it more difficult for charities and the Government to help people, make good decisions and measure change over time.

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