Joseph Rowntree Foundation chief Julia Unwin tells Martin Hilditch why it’s time to expose the realities of poverty
What’s the connection between poverty and ageing? The answer, according to Julia Unwin, is that both are subjects people tend to try to avoid thinking about because they are afraid of them. The chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation worries the result is that policy making in these areas receives far too little attention - or worse that there is almost no action at all.
‘It has very strongly hit me that whenever I’m engaged in discussions about long-term care that there is a level of denial and a refusal to think about it,’ she says. ‘I do wonder if there is a fear of vulnerability.’
And if people are afraid of poverty there is a danger this can lead to a ‘demonisation’ of the poor, she adds. ‘If you treat people as completely different, you can be completely dismissive of them.’
In recent weeks Ms Unwin and the JRF have been doing their bit to get policy makers and the public talking and thinking about both areas. The foundation has just published a paper on older people’s housing - which found a limited choice of homes for older people who want to move to specialist housing or to downsize.
And at today’s Chartered Institute of Housing conference, Ms Unwin will be locked in debate with Lord David Freud, the minister for welfare reform, in a session that examines what the reform will mean in the next year and how landlords should prepare for it.
When it comes to welfare reform, Ms Unwin is clear that JRF would ‘never want to be sentimental about what went before’. ‘The old system trapped people in poverty,’ she says.
What, though, would she be keen to discuss with Lord Freud? For starters, Ms Unwin suggests, the new IT system which will handle universal credit claims and payments is something she is ‘deeply concerned’ about. Given that the record of Whitehall’s big IT projects is akin to operatives of heavy machinery who down 15 pints of lager before their shift (it tends to get messy), there are some fears about whether the system will cause difficulties for people who rely on it.
‘The impact on individuals of even a bit of this system going wrong is catastrophic,’ she says. ‘What we need are assurances that these things are being thought through.
‘Losing what would be a relatively small amount of money to someone like Lord Freud can drop people into poverty straight away.’
Ms Unwin will also be looking to put forward concerns about Treasury analysis, published alongside this year’s Budget, which suggested that further welfare savings of £10 billion would have to be made by 2016. Despite getting ‘no coverage compared with the pasty tax’ this is something people should be worried about, Ms Unwin feels. ‘The only way I think you can do that is to make poor people pay,’ she states.
Despite these issues, Ms Unwin is clear that JRF is not a campaigning organisation. Instead, it aims to tackle poverty by researching its causes and identifying solutions and then using the evidence it gathers to promote change.
Over the next few years that means a focus on finding new ways, including social media, to place ‘people’s real, lived experiences in the public domain’.
‘We are trying to find different ways of getting those voices out without having to rely on crude case studies,’ she adds.
‘One of my challenges here is how can I make sure that the facts, increasingly of what is happening, are in the public domain.’
Julia Unwin on…
‘Our residents didn’t want to take part [in case studies] because they didn’t want to say to people “it will make a difference to me - not having this level of benefit”.’
The concept of ‘home’
‘We’ve stopped treating where [people on lower incomes] live as a home. It will be problematic for how communities build because people will only have temporary purchase anywhere.’
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation
‘We are not an organisation that chases headlines. [But] I believe that what we do is put the evidence in the public domain.’