Born in 1836, Joseph Rowntree was a Quaker, successful businessman and philanthropist. Alongside his brother, he developed the major Rowntree confectionary company from its modest beginnings as a cocoa works in York. However, Rowntree was not merely content to personally enjoy his wealth, he wanted his money to be used to tackle the root causes of social problems, rather than treating their symptoms.
In 1904, he established what was to become the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, then known as the Joseph Rowntree Village Trust, its original purpose was to build and manage the garden village of New Earswick, York. Since then, JRF’s objectives have widened to cover research and development across the UK, including Scotland. The organisation currently spends around £10.5m a year on its research and development programme and on work to take forward key messages.
The Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, established in 1968, provides housing, care homes, retirement and supported housing, and demonstrates new approaches in these areas. It manages around 2,500 homes, half of which are in New Earswick; the remainder are in the city of York and surrounding areas. The trust also provides retirement and supported housing services in York and other parts of north-east England. It shares trustees and directors with JRF.
For Julia Unwin, JRF’s heritage is hugely important. Speaking to Holyrood at JRF’s offices in York, she said: “Joseph Rowntree and his son Seebohm Rowntree quite literally counted the numbers of people who were born. They wrote reports which shocked the nation about what was happening to poor people in York. These reports looked at how much people had to live on, how they were spending their money and what they were doing. The story goes that when Winston Churchill looked at one of these reports, he said if it’s happening in York, it’s happening everywhere.
“Today, we have an intellectual heritage which says we carry on counting, we carry on having a clear sight of the numbers and what’s happening to people in poverty. That’s why in early December every year we publish an annual monitoring report, a state of the nation report which is just like what Joseph Rowntree did himself, though on a different scale.”
Unwin believes this annual reporting gives the organisation a vital benchmark which can provide some clarity about what’s really happening in terms of poverty. This year’s report has revealed that for the first time, there are more people in working families living below the poverty line (6.7 million) than in workless and retired families in poverty combined (6.3 million). It also found people are remaining in poverty despite moving in and out of work, with some facing very severe hardship. At the same time, the report said the support on offer to people who fall on hard times is increasingly threadbare.
However, not all of the findings were negative. It shows there has been an improvement in the labour market with falling unemployment and underemployment, and, over the longer term, improvements in health and education outcomes. Young adult unemployment has peaked at 21 per cent, and unemployment among the whole population has begun to fall, while the number of people underemployed – either unemployed, economically inactive and wanting work or working part time but wanting a full-time job – fell by 100,000 over the last year.
Among its other work, JRF is currently undertaking a project to develop anti-poverty strategies for the four nations of the UK. The UK has had a number of anti-poverty strategies in recent years, often focusing on particular groups, like children or pensioners, or with a specific regional scope. However, JRF believes they have all lacked an evidence-based link between the policies or actions suggested within the strategy and the outcomes sought.
The main aim of the programme is to produce an evidenced anti-poverty strategy for all age groups and each nation of the UK. JRF wants policymakers and its stakeholders to use the outputs it develops to inform national and local anti-poverty strategies; it wants to encourage a debate, based on the evidence, among poverty stakeholders about what a low-poverty UK would really be like.
Unwin said: “What we were interested in doing was asking what it would be like if you had a strategy for the four nations of the UK, though recognising the big differences between the four. We believe with sustained, long-term effort, with everyone pulling the same way, with an organising purpose, we could make a difference.
“We are the seventh richest country in the world and it is appalling we are reporting this month that there are 13 million people living in poverty, living at a level which gives them a huge gap between their lives and those of their fellow citizens. It is wasteful of their talents at a time when we need all the talents we can to get out of depression. It’s incredibly expensive because we know in the end, people who are poor end up costing the state more. Their health is less good, their education is less good, they’re more likely to get into difficulties. It’s dangerous and risky for us all to have an environment in which 13 million people feel so insecure. If we want a society where we can all progress, we need to tackle this.
“So that’s why we set ourselves this really big challenge, at a time when it’s not the most popular thing to be doing. Many people are incredibly dismissive of people who are the way some people talk about poverty, it is demonising. They talk about poor people as if they’re failures, as if they have done something to deserve their poverty. I would say what separates those of us who are not poor, to those who are, is a combination of where we live, what our legacy is in terms of the family we come from, and luck. None of those are reasons to treat people in a despising and hideous fashion.
“We’re trying to do this because we believe it is part of our historic mission to shine a light on what’s happening to people in poverty and come up with solutions. It is not enough for us to say ‘isn’t it awful’ – we know there are things which can be done. We cannot get into a position as a country where we say ‘oh well, 13 million people are poor, what a shame’ because if we do that we are risking our children’s futures.”
In terms of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, Unwin believes change is very important. She said: “The system of social security or welfare as it’s now called absolutely needs reforming. It was not fit for purpose; it didn’t address the modern labour market. It was designed at a time when once someone got a job, they stayed in work and the only reason they’d leave was for disability or redundancy. We know now the modern labour market is very different.
“We think a major overhaul of the welfare system is needed, to recognise the changing shape of family life, the rising numbers of households led by a single woman due to higher rates of divorce and separation, changes to the labour market and the expense of houses. We welcome any attempts to reform welfare, and we also think there are ways in which the welfare system has operated which have trapped people further into poverty.
“When the Centre for Social Justice published its report on dynamic benefits, it had some really interesting ideas. We thought it had real potential but it looked like a very expensive thing to do, so you would only do it if you had quite a lot of money. Of course, it would work much better in a booming labour market where jobs are being created. Universal credit has been attempted to be introduced at a time when there’s a reduction in the amount of money available on a very grand scale.
“It’s a technically very difficult thing to do because it assumes, in simple language, the computer system that’s used by the tax office, can speak to the computer system used by the welfare system. This makes it one of the biggest IT projects in Europe, I understand. It is a difficult and expensive thing to do. It is also happening at a time when a lot of other changes are coming into the welfare system. Unrelated to universal credit, we have seen a cap on benefits which has affected some parts of the country more than others, it has happened at the same time as the bedroom tax which has affected many people, particularly those who are disabled. It has happened at the same time as the move to measure the rate of inflation on benefits on CPI and not RPI. That’s one of those technical things which you blink and you can miss but what it does is remove the one buffer against inflation which very poor people have.
“All those changes have happened, and the introduction of a sanctions regime designed to mould people’s behaviour. In other words, benefits have always been conditional, you’ve always had to do some things in order to get them but it’s now become very challenging, some would say harsh. People can lose their welfare money for three months or a year or two years. What we know from JRF research is this will tend to do one of two things. It will either make people take jobs they can’t do, or they go off the benefits system completely, which has happened in the United States. If the latter happens, it will look good for the claimant count, it will look like we’ve got fewer people claiming, but we will have people who are destitute. I’ve warned about a decade of destitution because that’s the single most expensive thing which can happen. It’s a dangerous route for the individuals. I wouldn’t ever want to think there wasn’t scope for reform.
“The big risk we face now is that because the reforms are proving so difficult, we will get the cuts without the reform – that would be the worst possible outcome for people in poverty.”