The pain of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare cuts is only just starting to be felt
In the run up to the last general election, the media was full of reports and investigations into the impact of welfare reform. Every new batch of statistics showing a rise in the number of people using food banks or being sanctioned brought a new story.
This year, although certain stories have been reported, there is much less coverage. That doesn't mean there aren't still thousands of people being affected by the reforms, it's just that many of the numbers have levelled out. The food bank network the Trussell Trust reports that it gave out 506,369 three day emergency food supplies compared to 492,641 in the same period last year. This doesn't warrant many news reports because the increase is quite small. But that doesn't make the figures any less shocking: over six months this year, half a million people in Britain relied on handouts of food.
It's also rare that we hear about the cumulative effect of the changes. Over the last few days there have been a number of reports which highlight the impact of various government welfare reforms. Last week, a report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said that the bedroom tax was driving people into hunger and debt. There was another which showed that, despite separated parents now having to pay to access the DWP's new child maintenance system, there are still huge amounts of maintenance going unpaid. And a report by the work and pensions select committee warned that people are at risk of going hungry and losing their homes because of benefit delays. Individually these measures may not have a big impact, but taken together the effect can be catastrophic.
For many vulnerable people, the cumulative effect of these cuts can feel like being hit from all angles. The same person who has to find extra money each week to cover the bedroom tax is also likely to be at risk from benefit delays or sanctions. If they are newly separated form a partner they may not be able to rely on child maintenance because they can't afford to access the new system. If they are sick or disabled they may well have to deal with these issues on top of changes to disability benefits. It's not hard to see how so many people have ended up not knowing where the next meal is coming from.
One other factor missing from the coverage of the government's welfare reforms is that the long-term impact of them is only just emerging. Over recent years the number of homeless people has soared, camps of rough-sleepers have sprung up around the UK and, according to the charity Shelter, more than 100,000 children will spend this Christmas in temporary accommodation. Once you fall into a spiral of debt and poverty it's incredibly hard to get out. As the knock-on effects of benefit changes continue to be felt it's hard to see these figures coming down any time soon.
Coverage of welfare reform often gets lost in the finer details of parliamentary votes, and the internal politics of the Conservative party. But the bigger picture is that just like last year, and the year before, there will be thousands of people forced to rely on charity handouts to feed their children this Christmas. And they will be doing so as a direct result of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms.