Over 100,000 people have signed a petition demanding Iain Duncan Smith live on £53 a week, after the work and pensions secretary said he would be able to make do on the money.
Duncan Smith went on yesterday's Today programme after a market trader who said he was subsisting on an overall income of just £53 a week after his housing allowance was cut.
Asked if he could make do on the wage, Duncan Smith replied: "If I had to, I would."
At the time of writing, 124,286 people had signed a petition demanding the former leader survive on the income for a year – a drop in earnings of 97% on his reported £1,581 a week income.
Asked about the row during a major speech this lunchtime, George Osborne said: "I don’t think it's sensible to reduce this debate about one individual's personal circumstances.
"This debate is about is not about any individual."
The Osborne speech saw the chancellor try to get on the front foot after a weekend in which opponents of welfare reform relentlessly attacked the changes which came into force yesterday.
"We're trying to make the system fair on people like you, who get up, go to work and expect your taxes to be spent wisely," he told staff at a supermarket distribution centre.
"For too long, we've had a system where people who did the right thing – who get up in the morning and work hard – felt penalised for it, while people who did wrong thing got rewarded for it.
"That's wrong. So this month we're going to put things right."
This week saw cuts to housing benefit for those with extra rooms and alterations to council tax, alongside a gradual introduction of universal credit.
Anyone on £32,000 or more will lose access to legal aid, while disability living allowance will be scrapped later in the week.
There will also be a cut in the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p for people earning over £150,000.
But the government insists many new measures, such as an increase in the tax free personal allowance to £9,440 and a freeze in fuel duty, will leave nine out of ten working families better off.
"People in this country understand that the welfare system needs to change," Osborne said.
"The system was not just unaffordable. It was fundamentally broken.
"The system became so complicated, and benefits so generous, that people found they were better off on the dole than they were in work."
He added: "Those who defend the current benefit system are going to complain loudly. These vested interests always complain, with depressingly predictable outrage, about every change to a system which is failing.
"I want to take the argument to them. Because defending every line item of welfare spending isn’t credible in the current economic environment.
"The benefit system is broken; it penalises those who try to do the right thing; and the British people badly want it fixed. We agree – and those who don't are on the wrong side of the British public."
Osborne's intervention reflects the confidence with which the Conservatives believe they have public support for their attack on welfare spending, but it also suggests a mounting concern at the coalition of opponents who made their voices heard over the long Easter weekend.
On the bedroom tax, ministers were alarmed at the way Labour managed to score political damage with an issue which was viewed as popular with most voters.
The opposition joined forces with charities and religious groups to condemn the batch of welfare and tax changes as unfair and harsh.
In a joint report, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland attacked Osborne and the government for a "systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society".
Osborne was even labelled an "economic Dracula" whose policies "have sucked the life out of the economy" by union leaders.
"At the same time as the UK economy is flatlining, he is the architect of the so-called welfare reforms that are sucking hope from millions of people, some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our country," said Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite.
"The sight of the chancellor exhorting the low waged in work to turn their backs on the poor out of work has to mark a new low for one of the highest offices in the land," he said of the chancellor's speech today.
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls commented: "It's appalling, it's shocking, it's immoral, it's shameful, it's a disgrace, it's inhumane. What planet are they on? It's totally out of touch. I can't believe they are so callous."
Amid the criticism, Osborne will be grateful for a British Chamber of Commerce report which found Britain is probably out of recession and that the weak pound is starting to finally boost exports.