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The economy is growing again, but insecure work and wages are a worry for many families who fall into problem debt when they can’t cope with shocks to their finances, such as losing their job or falling ill.

StepChange helped almost 600,000 people struggling with their debts last year. We estimate there are some three million people across Britain in problem debt, and eighteen million people worried about making their income last until payday. Many are the same people who political parties are trying to woo. They are on low and average incomes, they work hard, have children, aspire to own a home.

Why are so many people at risk of falling into debt?

Their financial resilience is shot. Thirteen million people do not have a month’s worth of savings to keep up with essential bills, and just one in ten people believe that welfare payments would be sufficient to pay essential costs.

Credit plugs the gap – approximately six million people are using credit to make it through until payday, and almost three million are using credit to keep up with existing credit commitments. But credit is a deeply unsustainable “safety net” – interest and charges quickly mount up if you aren’t in a position to repay the bills quickly – landing people in a “debt trap”.

How does problem debt threaten economic resilience?

The stress that debt causes puts pressure on relationships, straining family life, leading to relationships ending and children doing less well at school. Debt can also lead to people losing their homes and relying more on support services.

Debt is also a major drag on the economy. Debt worries lead to more than £2 billion in employment costs through absenteeism, presenteeism and even job loss. Personal debts can make a small business go bust.

Meanwhile, debt repayments mean more of consumers’ spending goes on interest payments than on goods and services which help support job creation and growth. It also means lower investment, because banks have less to lend to good ideas, and leaves the economy more exposed to balance of payments, currency and inflation risks.

The total cost of problem debt amounts to £8.3 billion.

Why action on debt is a smart move for Conservatives

Counter-balancing action is needed to keep people out of problem debt. Six in ten people believe politicians should do more over the coming five years to help people like them stay out of financial difficulty.

We recently published an action plan for the next government to provide that counter-balance. Our proposals would: help families build up ‘rainy day’ savings; protect people from charges and enforcement action while they get debt advice; improve low-cost alternatives to payday loans; ensure government is a responsible debt collector; and protect children from the harm of harsh debt collection methods.

These proposals are simple and low cost and do not need to involve heaps of regulation. In fact, action on problem debt should reduce costs elsewhere.

Action on personal problem debt is intuitively Conservative and integral to the long term economic strategy. Lowering households’ and the economy’s exposure to ‘living expenses’ credit means minimising future risks and supporting ‘good’ entrepreneurialism. Supporting saving and building people’s financial resilience boosts fairness and choice, helping people get the most out of financial services markets.

It would also be welcomed by the voters: recent polling shows our savings proposal is more popular with Conservative voters, while between two thirds to three quarters of people who’ve switched preference from their 2010 vote would welcome action to protect people from charges and enforcement while they get debt advice; to improve low cost alternatives to payday loans; and to ensure government is a responsible debt collector.

Action on problem debt may be just what’s needed to ensure the next phase of economic recovery sees lower income families back on a steady footing.

Robbie de Santos is Senior Public Policy Advocate at StepChange. He tweets from @robbieds