Devon and Cornwall has worst level of debt in the UK
Westcountry families are being forced to borrow hundreds of pounds every month to put food on the table as government austerity measures continue to hit the region.
A grim report has shown people working in the South West need an extra £408 on average each month to keep their heads above water.
The figure is the highest in the UK according to the research tracking thousands of working people's lives through the economic crisis.
The survey, commissioned by Britain's largest union Unite, also showed 59% of respondents in the region have been so desperate that they have asked to do overtime at work in a bid to cut their debts – but found their requests have been turned down.
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In contrast, some people have found they are better off claiming benefits as people on lower incomes can claim Working Tax Credit.
Chris Griffiths, of East Devon Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) , said: "One young male client said he had offered to do less hours at work to maintain his level of tax credit. But the employer refused and he ended up leaving."
Devon CAB said over the period April 1 to June 30 it dealt with identified debt of £5.8 million and £2.5 million of financial gains for clients.
Exeter CAB said this year it has received a 4% increase in inquiries about debt and money problems, such as credit cards, unsecured loans and overdrafts, and inquiries about bankruptcy and debt relief orders. The average value of debt per client is £12,445, with the average amount owed to each creditor at £2,326.
Cornwall CAB now deals with debt problems in 60% of client cases. The average value of debt per client is £14,500 for families.
Graham Tierney, chief executive of CAB Cornwall, said many clients would never pay off their debts.
"We have noticed a steady rise in debt problems over the past few years. It will take the average couple with children 1,300 years to pay off debts. This alarming situation is even worse for the over-50s who have virtually no hope of erasing debts on average of £21,500."
He added: "Debt has always been a problem, but now it is at the worst level ever. There is little prospect of things improving with increasingly dire forecasts. For some people the best outcome is bankruptcy."
Poverty-stricken families in Devon and Cornwall are increasingly turning to food banks to help meet their needs. Figures show food banks have fed more than 100,000 people in England in 2011-12, a jump from almost 41,000 in 2009-2010.
Keith Ponsford, Bude New Life Centre Manager, said: "Usage of the Bude food bank has increased greatly over the past couple of months. We have set up a volunteer-led community money advice scheme to help people manage their debt levels which will be in operation within the next week. We are anticipating that will be a busy service."
Mr Griffiths said: "Food banks are springing up all over the place, which isn't a bad thing.
"But you wouldn't expect so many people in the 21st century to be impoverished enough to need them. It is a worrying trend that people in Devon are struggling to put food on the table."
Local shops and businesses are also being hit as 78% of respondents admitted they had cut back on their monthly spending budget.
Blame for the economic woe is being put firmly on the government with 59% in the South West claiming its economic policies were directly harming them.
Laurence Faircloth, Unite regional secretary in the South West, said: "These figures show the grim picture facing working people across the South West. Thousands are struggling with the impact of the cuts, a failing economy and rising prices.
"But rather than take the positive radical action necessary, this government continues to stand on the sidelines and do nothing to help people through our dire economic situation."
Hundreds of workers in the South West will take part in the TUC march in London on October 20.
Nigel Costley, regional secretary of the South West TUC, said: "People have bought into the idea we need to make sacrifices to survive. But this bad medicine is only making the patient worse.
"In Devon and Cornwall wages are low, debt levels rising and public sector services being cut. Anger levels are risings as the government proposes to make further cuts. It is an unfair approach to economic growth."