Over the last week the TV documentaries for sport relief have been shown and many have seen first hand what some of us already knew, people in this country are going hungry. I have watched cheery celebrities set off to go and live with these troubled families claiming that they’re sure that it can’t be be that bad and then, admittedly with some perverse pleasure at their comeuppance, I watch for the moment when they realise that not only are these situations dire but that the families they are staying with have very little hope of escaping from the reality in which they live. They are trapped. Then, as a final last ditch attempt to make some sense of it all and to offer some help, the celebrities ask to see the families finances. Invariably they have all borrowed money and are struggling to pay back debt at high interest rates. Over and over we hear this phrase, “They have made some bad choices.” And the nation breathes a sigh of relief again…it is all their own fault, they shouldn’t have made those bad choices!
And sometimes and in some ways that would be true. If you have watched a TV advert, noted down the telephone number, picked up and dialled and answered the questions to borrow money from a payday loan company, then yes, you have made a bad choice. It was possibly an ill-informed choice if you didn’t really understand interest rates, but a bad choice nonetheless. And do you know what? That’s OK! We all make bad choices. Think of anybody who has ever bought Tupperware (how much for a plastic box!!) or Ann Summers lingerie and you’ll see that it’s not that unusual to make a bad decision in a moment of weakness. It’s not just payday loan companies that build business based on it.
But not all money loaned comes from companies like this. There is a much more sinister money pushing business that goes on, door step money lenders. And in my experience, this isn’t just battling moments of weakness, it’s constantly avoiding the trap.
First, be aware of where these people work. I’d never lived on a housing estate before, I thought it seemed friendly, it was friendly. But it soon became apparent that I hadn’t just moved into a house, I’d moved into a community, assimilated into the club, and in a community like this…well let’s say it’s better to be in than out.
So it’s 6pm. Anyone who’s had children will tell you this is a bad time. I’ve been up since 5am and on the go all day, the children are tired, I am tired and frazzled and just tidying up before starting the bedtime battle. There’s a knock at the door. As I open it I have a child on my hip and one having a tantrum in the background, and I am faced with two men one of whom is holding £50 cash out to me. The conversation goes something like this…
Him: Hi Jennie, we’ve just sorted a loan out for your neighbour xxxx and he said you’d be interested too.
Me: No thanks.
Him: So you don’t need any money?
Him: Oh so you have lots of money?
Me: No. But I don’t want a loan.
Him: OK. Can you recommend a neighbour?
Me: No not really.
Him: So you don’t know your neighbours?
Me: Yes I know them. I just don’t think they will be interested.
Him: Well give me a couple of names and I’ll go and knock.
And so it went on, him waving his cash around giving it the hard sell, me juggling screaming children and trying to get him to leave. And did you spot what they did? It’s not a place where you want your neighbours to think you believe you’re better than them, nor do you want the heavy mob to think you don’t know them, there’s safety in numbers. These men are clever and somewhat slippery, it’s easy to get caught out or to give in.
But this isn’t a conversation I had once, this is a conversation I had on a weekly basis and on the run up to Christmas and Summer holidays they would be knocking 5 times a week. You’re tired, hungry, desperate for money, not sure when the next paycheck will arrive, and then faced with these people pushing cash onto you.
Is it a bad choice, can we really call it that? Or is it hardly a choice, more a moment of weakness? Either way, we can all be guilty of doing both.