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Are headline-grabbing debt stats actually useful?

Headlines like "People face surge in household debts in next five years – study" and "Cost of household debt set to soar by a third over the next five years, official forecasts reveal" always lead me to wonder: is that really helpful?

I want to break down how these bold and often frightening claims can impact debtors, for better or worse – and take a brief look at what these news articles should really be doing to help people.


How headlines can help

I can see the value in bringing these issues to the public. Awareness of the damage debt can do to people’s lives, to small businesses and to local authorities is essential if we are ever to improve the situation.

In cases where there is a clear issue or injustice, bold headlines could perhaps even galvanise people. This can help to foster change, such as by encouraging action like the new FCA rules relating to credit card providers. They can even help to foster a broader understanding of the circumstances of debt.


How they hurt debtors

Unfortunately, the tone of these articles often undermines any chance of positive action. Passive language that suggests people are 'facing' debt problems, rather than creating or struggling with them, implies they’re somehow disconnected from the debt and unable to change the situation. This is worsened by exaggerated adjectives like ‘insurmountable’ or ‘massive’ debt that make it seem impossible to escape.

Seeking out scapegoats further compounds the problem. By building up these enemies, whether it’s “bad, oligopolistic” energy firms or enforcement agent “bullies”, journalists can make people feel even more powerless – not to mention cause serious damages to industries like ours.


How they must improve

Ultimately, however, I think the argument over whether these headlines are good or bad misses the real problem: which is that they make debt harder to understand.

The Guardian article I cited earlier provides a good example. It discusses OBR (Office for Budget Responsibility) stats suggesting that the cost of servicing household debt would rise 29% by 2023. Sounds simple enough, until you take into account how much mortgage debt skews the figure.

Mortgages account for a majority of the debt, as well as the potential cost increase.

Consequently, the headline stat is less relevant to the poorest section of society, who could easily have been frightened by these claims, but becomes even more important to homeowners on high loan-to-value mortgage deals. This could even include people on high wages who see debt as separate from their mortgage and had therefore ignored the headline.

By taking the time to interpret the data properly instead of lumping it together, journalists could make their content more targeted, more helpful and less frightening. That can only be a good thing.

Many thanks for viewing my post; I hope you found it useful.

If you have any private questions on this topic, you can connect with me on LinkedIn and send me a message, or else you'll find my contact details on my LinkedIn profile.

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