A debate was held in the House of Commons looking at the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms on poverty.

In 2011 / 12, 13 million people in the UK were living in poverty ( Joseph Rowntree Foundation ) with average incomes falling and inequality returning to levels not seen since the mid-1990s ( Insitute of Fiscal Studies ).

By Natasha Davies, Chwarae Teg Policy Partner. Follow on Twitter: @daviesna2.

As poverty levels become an increasing cause for concern, reductions in public spending have seen the loss of public sector jobs and services and the most significant reform of the welfare system for decades.

For those working in the anti-poverty sector, welfare reform is of particular concern and there is increasing evidence that women are feeling the impact of these reforms more harshly than men.

Their position in the labour market and tendency to be second earners in a household mean that women are set to lose the most and gain the least from welfare reform.

Universal credit, the largest single change to the benefits system, aims to ‘make work pay’.

The problem is that due to its focus on getting at least one member of a household into work it offers little incentive for a second earner, usually the woman, to consider either entering the workplace or increasing their hours.

Many of the changes are likely to hit single parents hardest, 90% of whom are women. While the lack of affordable childcare continues to act as a significant barrier to employment, reforms that could see single parents lose more than 12% of their income by 2014-15 ( Undoing 30 Years of Progress – Victoria Winkler *PDF ) will only push women even further from the workplace.

A further area of concern is reform to housing benefit as women make up 54% of social housing tenants.

The ‘bedroom tax’ is having a substantial impact in Wales due to a shortage of smaller 1 and 2 bedroom properties and there are already signs that switching to direct benefit payments could discourage private landlords from renting to benefit claimants.

While individual aspects of the welfare reform programme, such as those outlined above, are concerning a larger issue is the cumulative impact that the reforms will have on women, especially in light of the current economic climate and high unemployment levels.

Although impact assessments are carried out on all individual policy decisions they rarely consider the cumulative impact and often work on the assumption that men and women begin in the same situation, which is seldom the case.

So what is the solution? A new approach to taking spending decisions is needed that fully appreciates the differences between men and women’s living and employment situations.

This will enable policy makers to ensure that all spending decisions are truly gender neutral by taking account of the different ways that men and women experience budgets and ensuring that spending decisions do not impact unfairly on anyone.