‘I went from a comfortable salary to absolutely zero’

A national poverty charity has seen a sharp rise in demand for emergency cash grants among people 30 and under struggling with unemployment. And experts are now warning about a “poverty trap.”

“I’m struggling to sleep because of the stress. I feel tired all the time. I feel drained.

“There’s a lack of money. A lack of everything.”

Like many young people, Matthew, 23, lost his job because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Ever since, he’s been struggling to keep his head above water. He’s behind on his rent and paying for basics like food has become a challenge.

He ended up turning to a national poverty charity who gave him an emergency cash grant to help him get by.

And that charity, Turn2Us, exclusively tells BBC Three that while the value of emergency grants they’ve paid to over 30s has doubled, it’s quadrupled for people 30 and under, compared to the same period last year, to £540,000.

“It’s a really big increase and it shows how badly hit this age group is by the lockdown measures and the economic impact of the coronavirus,” says Turn2Us welfare benefit expert Anna Stevenson.

The regions that saw the highest number of claimants of the charity’s £500 emergency coronavirus grant were London, Scotland and the north-west of England.

People apply for the grants online and they’re given out based on a number of factors, including whether you can prove a considerable loss of income and have savings of less than £1,000. Applications have been temporarily suspended while they deal with the backlog, the charity says, but there are other grants available.

“It was hellish before the virus for young people but it’s unbelievably hellish now,” says Lindsay Graham, independent policy advisor and member of the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Commission.

‘It makes you feel worthless’

Matthew lives in a flat in a converted house with his girlfriend in Newquay, Cornwall. Before the coronavirus lockdown, he says he was just about getting by.

“I pretty much kept my head above water,” he says. “We never lived month to month. We could always go about six weeks without work, that sort of thing.”

He was earning around £17,000 working as a housekeeping supervisor in a hotel – doing things like cleaning, organising rotas and ordering supplies. “A bit of everything really. I was sort of a dogsbody in the hotel.”

After working there for two years on a zero-hour contract, he was offered a job in a different hotel but with better, fixed hours.

“Obviously in hospitality and service, most of the contracts you get are zero hours so to be given something of 40 hours appealed to me. That’s why I left.

“I was working for the same company for two years and I simply just changed jobs at the wrong time.”

When the government first announced its furlough scheme it only applied to people who’d been in their job since at least 28 February. Chancellor Rishi Sunak later extended furlough to people who had started work as recently as 19 March. Matthew, however, was told he wouldn’t be put on furlough.

And his financial situation was made worse because he’d just spent £1,600 on a car for his new job.

The emotional stress began immediately.

“Everything was going through my mind: How am I going to pay for things? How am I going to support my girlfriend?

“I’ve always worked so to be unemployed sort of makes you feel you’re not worth anything even though I’ve always paid tax and national insurance and I’ve got a good CV.”

‘It’s degrading but everybody would feel the same way’

Matthew admits he struggled emotionally with applying for the grant and that the money worries have affected his mental health.

“Obviously it’s pretty degrading but I’m sure everybody in my situation would probably feel the same way. It’s not something I really wanted to do but I suppose it’s a necessity, isn’t it.

“And it’s definitely put a lot of stress on the relationships between me and all my family members.

“My brother works seasonally so he’s getting zero work at the moment.

“There’s quite a few people in my street, in my town, in Cornwall who are struggling.

“Hospitality is probably the worst hit sector. There’s a lot of seasonal jobs down here that may now not even come up in July or August.”

A recent report predicted that Newquay will suffer the greatest economic hit of any town in England and Wales.

Matthew has been applying for jobs constantly and managed to find a part-time job of eight hours a week as a delivery driver.

He got an advance from universal credit which will have to be repaid and he says he’s angry at how the benefits system pays younger people like him less.

“It definitely makes me feel bad. The council doesn’t say, ‘Well, you can pay less council tax because you’re under 25.’ And I pay more for my car insurance because I’m under 25. I don’t think you get a lot of things cheaper being younger.”

Matthew is now behind on rent and he hasn’t paid his council tax yet this year. “The only debts I have are because of what’s happened in the last eight to 10 weeks.”

He’s now considering moving abroad to find work and says plans to start a family have been put off.

“The prospect of bringing a child into this world doesn’t seem so great, does it?”

‘I went back to relying on my mum’

Lynsey, 25, is an events project manager who lives in Surrey with her mum. After working in events since graduating, she decided to give self-employment a crack in January.

She bagged a fixed-term contract with an airline that started in March but that was cancelled a short while later.

“It was quite a harsh ending,” she says. 

After weeks of hope and anxiety as she went back and forth with the airline, she was ultimately told she wouldn’t qualify for the furlough scheme. She didn’t qualify for self-employment support either. Like Matthew, though, she did qualify for an emergency cash grant from the charity.

For years, Lynsey has supported her mum, who works in a nursing home, by helping to pay the mortgage on the home they share.

“My mum works in social care so she’s working ridiculous hours at the moment.

“She’s in her mid-60s so she was trying to slow it down a little bit and I’d been supporting her financially since I was 16.

“I went from being on a really comfortable salary of £30,000 to quickly being on absolutely zero and depending on my mum again.

“It’s really frustrating. I’ve always been really independent. I’ve always paid my own way.

“The big anxiety and stress I have comes from my underlying worry that my mum feels like she has to work ridiculous hours to make up for the money that I can’t provide any more.

“I don’t want her being absolutely exhausted doing all these hours because I can’t support her.”

‘It’s a big black hole’

Looking into the future only brings her more worry.

“Working in the events industry, there’s not a glimmer of when that’s going to get up and running again. It’s a big black hole.

“I’ve literally just been scraping by.”

Alongside constantly trawling through online job sites for openings in her industry, Lynsey secured a position as a mental health support worker with the NHS. But because of social distancing measures, the training for that position has been delayed.

“Being at home all the time really gives you the time to think, which hasn’t been good for my mental health.

“It’s hit me very hard. I’ve had a couple of wobbles where I’ve thought: ‘There’s no way out.’ I was getting told ‘no’ from everyone.”

She has, though, found support on social media among other young people in the same position as her.

“Every day I’m active in a Facebook group with other new starters who missed out on the furlough scheme. Most people in the group are younger, like me.

“People left old jobs to start new ones to better themselves but we’ve been completely forgotten.

“Rishi Sunak said nobody would be left behind but we’ve got a group with nearly 10,000 people who have been.”

Lynsey says, in the end, she feels abandoned.

“I thought: ‘This cannot be humanly possible to have absolutely no way out or no support.'” 

Why have young people been so badly hit?

People under 30 are often at the beginning of their careers so they’re more likely to have more precarious employment situations, according to Anna Stevenson.

“And there are some additional factors that particularly affect this age group: under 25s are treated much more harshly in the benefits system,” she adds. “They don’t get the same level of support as people over 25. There isn’t really any justification for it at all.”

The welfare expert also says the lack of government support for renters is an issue.

“Younger people are also more likely to be renting and, as we know, renters have not had the same level of support from the government as people with mortgages.”

The expert adds: “It’s really important to make sure this crisis is a temporary setback for young people and not a long-term burden.

“Poverty can become a trap when people get into a position of taking out high-cost loans, taking any job at all because they need a job but then it’s not one that allows any space for advancement.

“So young people really need training, support, access to good jobs and access to secure, affordable housing.”

Executive director of the Equality Trust Dr Wanda Wyporska adds: “Young people have been in a bad situation for the past decade with increasing rental, housing and accommodation costs.

“There obviously needs to be a great deal more affordable social housing. That’s at the heart of a lot of the poverty crisis.

“We need to make sure that young people are paid a real living wage because currently we have people who are working for their poverty. They are in jobs that are very poorly paid and then going to food banks.

“And we need to see a return of investment in youth services, in mental health services and in a wider range of public services to support young people.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We’ve injected more than £6.5 billion into the welfare system, including increasing universal credit and Working Tax Credit by up to £1,040 a year, including for those under 25.

“We have also helped over one million households by raising Local Housing Allowance rates for universal credit and housing benefit claimants, while Discretionary Housing Payments are available to further support those most in need.”

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson added: “We’ve put in place an unprecedented support package to help prevent people regardless of age getting into financial hardship or rent arrears, and to ensure no one can be forced from their home.

“We’ve also increased the Local Housing Allowance rates to cover the lowest 30% of market rents. From April around 900,000 people across the UK saw their housing benefit rise.”

Meanwhile, a Treasury spokesperson said: “Our wide-ranging support package is one of the most comprehensive in the world – with generous income support schemes, billions paid in loans and grants, tax deferrals, mortgage holidays and more than £6.5bn injected into the welfare safety net.

“All our support is targeted to make sure we use public funds responsibly, helping those who need it most as quickly as possible, while minimising fraud risk.”