Up to 50 per cent of families are living below the poverty line in Greater Manchester's worst hit areas, and COVID-19 isn't helping.
According to poverty charity Turn2Us, which works across the country, a total of 33.6 per cent of children in the city region are currently living below the bread-line.
In the worst hit areas, in some parts of Oldham, this increases to 50 per cent of children living in poverty, and that’s before housing costs are taken into account.
As a result, Greater Manchester has one of the worst levels of child poverty by local authority in the country.
Turn2Us has a benefit calculator on its website that allows users to find out how much financial support they are entitled to, and provides information about where to go to get that support.
This time last year, the charity’s calculator saw around 39,000 individual users, but thanks to the pandemic this number has risen by 75 per cent to 66,577.
Half of those who used the charity’s benefit calculator have children living in their households.
The charity’s website has also seen a surge in visitors, with a 523 per cent increase since the end of March.
Liam Evans, a spokesperson for Turn2Us, said: “A lot of charities have been struggling for money, we are relatively lucky and have escaped that.
“Usually we hand out £4 million in grants per year, but because the need is so high at the moment, we’ve handed out £2 million in the last few momths alone.
“I couldn’t praise our staff enough, they’re working pretty serious hours and we have just 13 staff who have dealt with around 3,000 grants.
“We’ve seen one million people use our benefits calculator since the pandemic started – around two per cent of the UK population.”
James Dean, who is a single parent and first reached out to Turn2Us for help last month, lives in Droylsden in Tameside with his young son.
He has been a swimming teacher for more than 17 years. He worked for Tameside Council for over a decade and also taught for a disabled charity for 11 years.
In 2017, he decided work privately on a self-employed basis providing more one-to-one lessons. But from March 17 this year, the virus forced all leisure facilities to close, leaving him with no work and no way to earn money.
James is now in financial trouble and “deeply stressed”. With his house to pay for and his son to support, he’s now critically low on funds and is having to turn to the benefits system.
But he said no-one has been in touch regarding his Universal Credit application and he’s worried that this will mean his internet and other utilities will be cut off.
He said: “Maybe I’m filling in the online forms wrong but there doesn’t seem to be anyone to help with this. My future is extremely uncertain.
“Next week, I will have no alternative but to put myself and the public at risk by going out to work. Sitting here doing nothing is not an option.”
Trying to contact the DWP has been extremely difficult for James because the offices are not operating normal services. Sometimes he’s been left on hold for hours.
He’s also been given no help with his household bills. He feels he should qualify for Government help but hasn’t yet received anything.
To help people like James, Turn2Us is calling for an increase in the basic housing allowance to match medium rent values across Greater Manchester to prevent rent arrears and evictions.
They also want politicians to remove the five week waiting period after Universal Credit applications, temporarily suspend the benefit cap, increase the amount offered through child benefit by £10 a week and get rid of the two-child limit, to help struggling families stay afloat at this difficult time.
More immediately, the charity has extended its helpline’s hours to try and support as many people as it possibly can at this time.
It is also handing out grants, averaging around £500, to individuals who qualify for assistance. Through its grant scheme the charity has given out £2 million since the pandemic began just three months ago.
Of that £2 million, £227,287 has been given to people living in the North West since March.
Councillor Arooj Shah is deputy leader of Oldham Council and cabinet member for COVID-19 recovery, which as part of its remit looks to tackle poverty and unemployment.
Before the pandemic began the council was piloting a programme listening to young people and children to find out about their every day experiences of poverty, with the aim to remove stigma and find out where more support was needed.
Coun Shah said: “We are very aware that there are too many children in Oldham who are living below the poverty line; the results of many years of financial cuts by central government.
“The council is also a key partner in a national pilot project to explore how local emergency crisis support can be better co-ordinated to ensure that our most vulnerable and disadvantaged people do not fall through the welfare safety net.
“The coronavirus pandemic has increased the pressure on many vulnerable families to put food on the table and it is the duty of all of us to try and help those most in need.
“Rebuilding our businesses and local communities, ensuring our youngsters have regular meals and a great education and making Oldham a great place to live.”
A spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) said: “We know that the coronavirus pandemic has had a damaging impact on the health and economic inequalities that, sadly, already exist in this country.
“This is why we’re working with our 10 boroughs and other organisations to step in and do all that we can, identifying how we can best meet the needs of children and young people at this time.
“This has included an investment of £150,000 in more than 500 digital kit bundles for digitally excluded school pupils, and 22,000 Creative Care kits that have been distributed to young people throughout Greater Manchester.
“The Mayor and the City Mayor of Salford have also written to the Government calling on them to remove the benefit cap and the two-child limit to Universal Credit. This is a moment when we should be making sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected, not left behind.”
Both Andy Burnham and Paul Dennett, Mayor for Salford, also called for a rise in the living housing allowance, echoing Turn2Us’s pleas to central Government.