In places where the new system has been running for at least 18 months, demand has jumped to 40%. And in areas with Universal Credit for at least two years, the need for food assistance has leapt to 48%.
Universal Credit is a benefits system that replaces six older legacy benefits with one monthly payment.
The Trussell Trust, a leading UK food bank provider, says that while the Department for Work and Pensions has attempted to find solutions to issues with Universal Credit, the wait for a first benefit payment, which is often longer than five weeks, is causing unnecessary hardship.
Government loans currently offered during the wait are also pushing more people into debt, the organisation charges.
Emma Revie, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive, said: “Universal Credit should be there to anchor any of us against the tides of poverty.
“But the five-week wait fatally undermines this principle, pushing people into debt, homelessness and destitution.”
In response, the organisation is calling for an end to the five-week waiting period.
In its new report, the charity examined the impact of the five-week wait for Universal Credit by analysing food bank parcel data across 414 food banks within its network.
It also gathered more than 70 case studies from people affected by the wait and followed up with a subset of cases that reflected a range of different circumstances.
Natalie Thomas, community centre assistant at the Salvation Army food bank in Preston, Lancashire, where HuffPost UK spent some time last year talking to people who described how the benefits change had forced them into poverty, says the revelations come as no surprise.
She told HuffPost UK that the food bank is seeing the real-life impact of Universal Credit since it began applying to all working-age people last year. “We have had our busiest 18 months yet, and we got to a point where we just had no food to give out,” Thomas said.
“We were having to spend £400 a week just to top up the food supplies, and it still wasn’t lasting the week.
“We have actually had to close one of our days, as we couldn’t cope with the demand, so are now open four days a week.”
Thomas noted that there has been a sharp increase in working people and families needed food assistance, and that due to the increased demand, the food bank can now only help people with food parcels three times within a 12-month period, and then they have to turn them away.
Thomas revealed that in June 2018, before the rollout of Universal Credit to everyone on benefits in Preston, the food bank gave out 494 bags of food.
In August this year, it gave out 894 food parcels – despite opening one day less a week.
Rhyl in North Wales, which now has more food banks than supermarkets as a fourth food bank has opened in the town, is also seeing the impact of Universal Credit.
Sarah Thomas, who runs the King’s Storehouse food bank in Rhyl, told HuffPost UK that Universal Credit was putting an added pressure on those already struggling.
“We have always been busy, but we are even busier since the rollout of Universal Credit.
“Once people are stuck and struggling, it takes a while to get out of that vicious cycle, and the wait for Universal Credit is making life even more difficult for them.
“There are lots of problems out there leading to people struggling to afford food, but Universal Credit has definitely not helped.”
The Trussell Trust’s report also reveals the detrimental impact the wait is having on people’s mental health.
Many people reported experiencing high levels of anxiety, and some even reported feeling suicidal.
Mike, a single man, had to resign from his work as a support worker to care for his mother who was diagnosed with a long-term disease.
During this time he had to claim Universal Credit. He found that he could no longer manage to pay his rent after he took an advance payment. He said he found the experience extremely distressing, and it affected his mental health at an already difficult time.
“It’s made me go from being a confident lad who loved working with vulnerable people to ending up needing the support I used to offer others. Now I’m unable to support them or myself.”
Jasmin, a single parent with four children, described how she wasn’t previously claiming any welfare benefits but made a claim for Universal Credit after leaving an abusive partner.
She says the wait for her first Universal Credit payment has meant she can’t pay her rent and feels the only way for her to put a roof over their heads and pay the bills is to go back to her abusive ex-partner.
She said: “It’s not only feeding my kids but struggling with no hope. It’s forcing me to go back and live with my abuser, because I don’t have choices.
“At least he can support his kids and pay for rent, clothes, bills, school trips and uniform.
“If Universal Credit had paid me earlier, I would not face all these problems by myself.”
A similar pattern of financial hardship in areas where Universal Credit has rolled out is revealed in a new report from the Riverside Group, a large provider of social housing and homelessness services.
Its analysis found that on average, people claiming Universal Credit in July 2019 had experienced a 42% increase in rent arrears since rollout began in 2015.
By stark contrast, those claiming Housing Benefit, the previous “legacy” benefits system, experienced a 20% decrease, the group’s findings show.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman criticised the Trussell Trust’s findings: “This report uses unrepresentative data to reach an entirely unsubstantiated conclusion.
“It categorically does not prove that Universal Credit is the reason behind increased food bank usage.
“With Universal Credit, people can get paid urgently if they need it, and we’ve changed the system so people can receive even more money in the first two weeks than under the old system.”
But Revie, the Trussell Trust’s chief executive, disagrees and is disappointed by the DWP’s response to the research.
She said: “Our food bank referral data is trusted and the best available data on food bank use in the UK.
“It is collected from the more than 60,000 agencies that refer people to food banks in our network, and the insights it shows are echoed in the findings of many frontline charities, and over 40 organisations who have joined our campaign.”
She added: “The experiences of people on Universal Credit cannot be denied. While the system may work well for many, it’s clear from the evidence of food banks and countless organisations there are also many people being failed.
Revie acknowledged that Universal Credit is not the only reason people are referred to food banks, but said that issues with the new system are clearly pushing people through food banks’ doors.
“People have used their voice to report the flaws in the system that have pushed them to a food bank, and it is crucial our government listens,” she said.