Tackling debt: It's not all about the money

by Matt Barlow

Posted: 17 May 2019

What does UK poverty look like? The extent of the problem is often hidden behind closed doors, where families go without meals and houses are unheated in the winter. 

Too often, people struggle alone. A survey of over a thousand people in debt [1] found that 75% waited over a year before seeking help with their debts. When asked why this was, many said they didn't believe anyone could help, or were too embarrassed to talk about money. Not only does poverty damage people's physical health but it isolates them, erodes their mental and emotional well-being, steals their hope. It's a material problem but its effects are far-reaching.

Christians Against Poverty is a national charity committed to equipping people to escape poverty. But because CAP recognises the true nature of poverty, the organisation tackles not just poverty, but also its root causes, helping people find paid work, beat life-controlling habits, and learn the skills needed to live well on a low income.

Such a holistic approach can make a big difference. A remarkable 95% of people who go debt free with CAP's help are still happily in control of their finances up to five years later. They also report higher levels of confidence, better family relationships and improved mental health once they don't have that crushing weight of debt on them.

The key to everything that CAP does is the local Church. Right across the country, there's a network of hundreds of churches, ordinary communities made up of ordinary people but carrying within them a light that breaks through the darkness and despair of destitution. Whenever CAP's debt coaches encounter someone in need of more holistic support, perhaps a friendly chat with someone over coffee or a chance to meet new faces who won't judge them, they have a ready-made support network at their church.

It's this holistic approach, offering in depth emotional support as well as financial help that makes the difference, helping people for whom a one-off phone call with a financial adviser simply wouldn't be enough. Take Sarah, for example. [2] She ended up in debt after her marriage fell apart, when she was not receiving child maintenance to care for her son. Stressed and unable to make ends meet, she went to CAP for help. Her debt coach Karen came to her house for all their meetings. She even went to the trouble of bringing a nice pack of biscuits. It was a small gesture but one that spoke loudly to Sarah about who she was and what she was worth. In addition to getting her on a plan to repay her debts, which was tailored to her income, and could be altered when she was temporarily unemployed, Karen also secured a grant (through the church) for Sarah to buy a new freezer when hers broke down. Sarah was not a debt problem but a person, made in the image of God, and now she has a bright future ahead of her.

Debt is about more than the sums of money we owe one another. That specific problem can be acute but is often nested within wider personal, social and spiritual issues that demand attention. To treat debt seriously means recognising and engaging with people, in all their vulnerable, wonderful glory.

To speak to someone at CAP, call free on 0800 328 0006. To join our team of amazing Life Changers and set others free from poverty, click here

This article is part of our series on debt in partnership with Theos think tank.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Theos and St Paul's Institute. For our views, read our report on debt.

About this author

Matt Barlow is the Chief Executive of Christians Against Poverty (CAP).


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.