Having a job is no guarantee a person or their family can escape a growing debt burden, according to a survey of social services in Brussels.
The survey is produced by the Observatory for Health and Welfare, a study service of the Joint Community Commission in the capital, which brings together the Flemish and French communities.
The study looks at excessive debt, which it describes as “an important phenomenon in the Brussels Region [that] affects many people living in poverty. The problem has a major impact on all areas of life and leads to a rapid deterioration of the quality of life, a lot of misery and legal agony.”
Excessive debt might be described as the situation where existing debt creates new debt. A head of family, for example, might allow one debt to lapse in order to be able to pay another, or avoid spending on medical care leading to inability to work.
The Observatory based its study on data from four debt-counselling services in the social aid agencies in Brussels and found that two-thirds of people who have an income below the poverty level are living with excess debt. Among those, single-parent families represent one in four who have recourse to debt counselling.
The majority – three in four – are living from social, medical or unemployment benefits. But that leaves one in four who is working and earning a wage. Not that it offers them much protection.
Debts involved include housing, health care, communications (phone bill), taxes, child care and schools. Some of those costs are low, but the principal of excess debt means low costs like child care will be allowed to build up while fighting off high costs like rent until the stage is reached where the low costs have mounted up to such an extent as to become high costs.
The amounts build up in no time, and the stigma of debt is such that 60% of people who turn to debt counselling services are already involved in legal recovery procedures and may already have received a visit from the bailiffs – which adds substantially to the debt.
On average, those who turn to counselling are being pursued by 11 creditors and have a cumulative debt of €20,000.
The study concludes by lamenting the lack of comprehensive data on this issue and calls for more attention to be paid to the question. It also recommends that excess debt needs to be tackled earlier to prevent it from becoming unmanageable – meaning earlier, if possible, than that time when debtors turn up for debt counselling.