Dying for Change presents our reader survey's key themes as actions for the next Government, if it is serious about increasing financial wellbeing. Actually, where we uncovered the impact of money worries on readers’ health, it's an agenda for improving wellbeing in general.
A good friend reminded me the devil is in the detail with these things. It’s easy to write a shortlist of catchy headings but can we break them down into practical, achievable actions? I believe we have. What’s more, many don’t require massive financial input, just a different way of thinking… although this may be more challenging to some than throwing money at ideas.
We call for five issues to be addressed as a priority. Quids in! readers told us they need:
- The financial means to improve their health and wellbeing
- A strategic, health-based response to illness where money worries are the root cause
- Reassurance that financial services will protect them and enable them to manage better
- Access and support to online facilities that will help them stretch and manage their money
- More appropriate engagement with low income users by advice agencies, landlords, authorities and the finance sector
Starting with the last point, it’s worth acknowledging that this is a very Social Publishing Project interpretation of what our readers need. Quids in! very much starts with the question, ‘How do we engage people on lower incomes?’ and we win praise for emulating tabloid-style magazines. It’s not rocket science but most well-meaning materials produced for the same audience seem written for a well-educated readership. It’s on websites dense with text, assuming IT literacy. It’s in long, text-driven pamphlets on debt. It’s in jargon-laden government leaflets on welfare.
It’s also in the culture of providers: I’ve heard advisors attending financial capability forums asking: ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ In the next few years, it may be that only people without the skills to find advice online will need face-to-face support. Think on, advisors, ‘these people’ may become the sole raison d’etre of your services. Learn to speak their language.
The same goes for the ‘digital by default’ agenda, something I also blogged on before, (see Let Them Eat Broadband). Before jobseekers are sanctioned for not uploading their CV or applying online, check the facilities are there for them to do so. I know jobseekers who were not allowed to use a memory stick on the PCs at the library who then had their benefits suspended. The Guardian recently ran an excellent piece (see it here) about Jobcentre Plus requiring 40 hours of online job search (or face destitution) when libraries are forced to limit access to PCs. This goes beyond unjust. If our readers had more of a voice, this would be a national scandal.
Beyond access to facilities, there’s still a world of change needed to motivate people on low incomes to get online. We need a national public information campaign on the benefits of doing so. We need more pumped into the network of UK Online Centres to ensure everyone has access to support and training once they take the leap into the world wide web.
At a conference in January, banks talked excitedly about tech increasing access to services. Unless it is designed with the ‘have nots’ in mind, this will only worsen exclusion, not improve it. Co-design is part of the answer. Ask our readers and they’ll tell you what’s going to work for them. Closing high street branches and increasing online access is the reverse of what they need. There’s some good stuff going on and Government should flex its proprietorial muscle so banks invest in community projects like Credit Unions. This should be matched with education about which financial products help people manage an evermore complicated world, especially as the administration of benefits gets turned upside down with direct and monthly payments.
At the core of our ideas on what external help readers need to improve their health are the principles behind social prescribing. Where it happens, health professionals and their partners tackle the root causes of ill-health with prescriptions for support, not (just) drugs. If someone is depressed because of debt, they should be signposted to debt advice. Again, this isn’t brain surgery. But it will take a concerted effort to educate GPs, for example, about the national and local services available. Getting down to prevention in this way could save the NHS a packet, and it’s surely better for patients than the (pharmaceutical) ‘cure’.
At the top of our list, then, is addressing financial wellbeing among low income households as a matter of general health. We know poverty kills but our manifesto tries to avoid calls that can be dismissed by politicians claiming the vaults are still empty. We focus on ways to help reduce the debilitating fear behind financial uncertainty by better promotion of help that is available when families are struggling. It would also help if welfare rights weren't treated like a national security issue, so people knew what was happening – before it happens. We call for a lifelong learning strategy on financial capability, building on the good work started in schools but increasing access to adults, especially at life changing events like marriage, childbirth, divorce and death.
Then there’s simple fairness. Communities fail fastest when they know what’s forced upon them is unjust. We would make a pragmatic call for benefit cuts only when claimants have the means to offset them with lifestyle choices but that won't work because politicians have no idea about the tough choices real people already face. We do call for acceleration of the better-off-in-work principles embedded in Universal Credit and a way for claimants hit by underoccupancy rules to be able to ‘work off’ the shortfall in their rent. But then, the Bedroom Tax is the clearest symbol of injustice in the welfare reform agenda and should be scrapped altogether, especially where people are willing to move but cannot. VAT should be reduced, as it hits low income households hardest and taxation should be adjusted so austerity does not only affect the poorest.
So, yes, the devil’s in the detail but we think we’ve produced a pretty robust agenda for change that Quids in! readers are currently dying for. See our manifesto here.