Niamh Mulcahy is a political economist and currently Junior Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. She has been jointly awarded the Alice Tong Sze Fellowship at CRASSH from 2019 – 2022.

Q. Niamh, you have been a Fellow with CRASSH for about a year, could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your Fellowship?

I joined CRASSH in October 2019 as Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow, based jointly at Lucy Cavendish College. My current project is a funded research collaboration with two local authorities, Peterborough City Council and Allerdale Borough Council, that examines the regional disparity and inequality produced by surging household debt levels. Specifically, I am interested in how welfare and service provision is changing at the local level to address increasing demand for financial and housing assistance, brought on by growing numbers of indebted households struggling with unaffordable costs of living. Much of the policy aimed at reducing the problem of household debt at a national level focuses on the use of financial literacy to instil people with better saving and borrowing habits. But local authorities often feel the negative effects of indebtedness in immediate ways within their communities, requiring them to devise more concrete solutions that intervene directly at the level of service provision and the giving of assistance to those in need. As a result, the evolution of local and regional assistance to problem debt represents a real, if often overlooked, policy response to an issue that captures national attention.

Q. What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?

As a political economist, I have had an interest in the social determinants of economic inequality, and the question of household debt as a necessity that helps to tide people over when the cost of living outpaces income is one that has informed my work since I was a PhD student in the Department of Sociology here at Cambridge. Originally, my research had a very theoretical slant, in thinking about the concept of financial risk itself and its operation within everyday life. However, this generated interest from contacts and stakeholders I was connecting with, and I have been especially intrigued by the collaborative angle my current project takes, and the potential policy implications it has as a result.

Q. Are there any major events that have impacted your research in particular?

My research is contextualised fairly specifically in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which has, on the whole, led to declining standards of living across the country. Household debt shows no signs of slowing down, while homelessness and food bank use, as indicators of the difficulty people have in meeting basic needs, are on the rise. Local authorities, in the meantime, are using powers that have, since about 2011, been devolved to regional and local levels from central government, to draw revenue from investment and financial activity as a way of financing service provision. So, the developments I am observing and interacting with are very much a product of particular circumstances.

Q. You are currently working on a book, could you tell us about it?

I currently have a manuscript under contract with Routledge Press, that is based on my doctoral thesis. In it, I examine the spread of financial risk to households through the availability of credit, loans, and mortgages, as well as the promotion of personal investment as a form of saving with a better payoff. I consider how financial commitments exacerbate economic inequality by extending a sense of precariousness, beyond the labour market, into household savings, assets, and the future stability that individuals and families can hope to enjoy. I am making my final revisions to the manuscript, which will be submitted in January 2021.

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