ALMOST 80 families in Sunderland are receiving more than £26,000 in benefits each year.
The figures come as efforts get under way to cut the number of Wearsiders relying on state handouts.
While thousands of working families across the city struggle to make ends meet, concerns are growing about those apparently content to live off the taxpayer.
Benefits have historically risen in line with the rate of inflation, and increased by more than five per cent in 2012-13.
The Department for Work and Pensions published research last week suggesting jobless benefits rose by 20 per cent in the last five years, compared with an average 12 per cent rise in private sector pay.
And while a newly-qualified teacher in Sunderland, often working long hours, earns £21,588 per year, families living on benefits can rack up incomes in excess of £26,000.
The Coalition says benefits should not be rising at a faster rate than wages and yesterday voted on plans to cap payments by one per cent.
Tories in the Sunderland say they do not relish imposing the cap but argue billions of pounds of further savings are needed.
But Bridget Phillipson, Houghton and Sunderland South Labour MP, opposes the move, saying it will result in a real-terms cut in support for millions of working people.
She said: “The Government’s myths have been exposed.
“The majority of those being hit by cuts to tax credits and other benefits are low-income working families. At the same time, the Government is handing a tax cut to millionaires.
“This is entirely the wrong choice and shows how completely out of touch they are with the daily struggle of many families across Wearside.
“I want to see the benefits bill come down, but the way to do this is to get the economy growing and get people back to work.”
But Robert Oliver, Sunderland Conservatives leader and St Chad’s councillor, believes the right course of action is now under way.
“It should never be more beneficial to be on benefits than to be in work,” he said.
“I would be in favour of benefits rising at a slower rate than wages. If this does not happen we are in danger of trapping people in the benefits system.
“The challenge is to make sure that when people come off benefits there is work for them to go into.
“Not enough was achieved in moving people out of long-term unemployment when the economy was booming. It is even harder to do this when it is not so healthy.”
Campaigners in the city say they remain worried that benefit changes will simply create a “divided Sunderland”.
Jennifer Potts, a family support advisor who works in drop-in centres for struggling families across the city, said: “If we don’t make sure that benefit rates at least reflect the cost of living changes then all we are doing is increasing inequality in the area.
•Have you been affected by the proposed changes? Contact Craig Thompson, tel: 501 7146.
SHOPPERS on Southwick Green gave their opinion on the Government’s decision to try and cut the number of people relying on benefits to survive.
Rosina Blenkinsop, 63, from Southwick, who is retired, said: “It is terrible that this Government are doing nothing to help us, when people can’t afford to live now as it is.”
Caroline Ferry, 60, from Southwick, who is also retired, said: “It is a disgrace. I have to shop everyday so I buy the right amount of food and nothing goes to waste, because I can’t afford to buy more.”
Kelly Swalwell, 24, from Southwick, a full-time mum, said: “At the end of the day having two young children is a full-time job and I can’t afford to go out to work.”
George Davison, 61, from Fulwell, who works full-time, said: “Even if you are in work things are difficult. I haven’t had a pay rise for three years.”
Stella Stephenson, 57, from Marley Pots, who is a carer, said: “In this area people are going to really struggle. More people will end up on the streets.
“It’s going to hit communities hard, especially when universal tax credit comes in. People won’t survive.”
Benefits set to be capped:
•Employment and Support Allowance
•Elements of housing benefit
•Sick Pay, Maternity Pay, Paternity Pay, Adoption Pay
•Couple and lone parent elements of working tax credits and the child element of the child tax credit.