CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion (Report No. 2)

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Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion


Beyond the stereotypes

Avila Kilmurray

The 'poor', if not invisible, are often viewed as a homogeneous, and dehumanised, mass. Yet a more sympathetic picture would present a wide diversity of experiences of social exclusion. It would also demand greater sensitivity to the variety of mechanisms at work. And it would require a view of social exclusion as a - reversible - process, rather than a state of affairs to be fatalistically accepted.

Painting that more nuanced picture is necessary if policy-makers are to elaborate humane and sophisticated responses to social exclusion. It is necessary, too, if disadvantaged communities, geographically or otherwise defined, are to find an effective voice - and, indeed, to address themselves how they can sometimes be complicit in the exclusion of others.

Donna, an 18-year-old single parent living with her nine-month-old daughter, Danielle, in the. Brownlow area of Craigavon, put it this way:

The worst thing about it is the boredom. There is nothing for young mums to do - we just sit in each other's houses. I get up in the morning, feed the baby, then go back to bed. Later I do a bit of housework, sit in with friends and just wait for my boyfriend to call around. Sometimes I think, 'My God, this is my life! [1]
Donna actually felt better off in retrospect than some of her friends, whose boyfriends had left them when they found they were pregnant, but her despondency and limited expectations come through clearly enough. Contributing factors were not just minimal social security benefits but also lack of childcare, poor educational attainment and isolation. Nor did living in a community marked by disadvantage offer any alternative aspirations.

A victim of social exclusion - or just poverty? Thirty years ago Jules Feiffer wrote in the Village Voice: "I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn't poor - I was needy Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy. I was deprived. They then told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don't have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary."

'Social exclusion' might be thought just another link in a chain of shifting terminology. As one member of the European Union Observatory on National Policies to Combat Social Exclusion, Seamus 0 Cinneide, pointed out,[2] "There is no point in using the term simply as a new piece of jargon, a pretentious flavour-of-the-month synonym for the familiar grim reality we once called poverty." Mr O Cinneide outlined three key dimensions of social exclusion: unemployment, poverty, and personal and public rejection.

The observatory asserted that social exclusion could be analysed in terms of the denial - or non-realisation - of social rights. It went further, holding that exclusion from political rights often went hand-in-hand with other forms of exclusion.[3]

Three years after the observatory report, the EU social policy white paper reiterated: "The marginalisation of major social groups is a challenge to the social cohesion of the Union and calls for a mobilisation of efforts by Member States and all the parties concerned, and for a reinforcement of the bulwark of social rights. It is clear that contemporary economic and social conditions tend to exclude some groups from the cycle of opportunities."[4]

The observatory examined the impact of social and economic conditions on five categories of people felt to be particularly vulnerable to social exclusion. As Donna's case makes clear, potential victimisation and social exclusion depends largely on income and the degree of forced dependence on state benefits and services: a young single parent with money could employ a nanny or resort to boarding school, while Donna had to make do as and how she could.

With that rider, however, the five categories identified by the EU observatory can be adapted thus for the Northern Ireland context, as groups running a severe risk of exclusion:

  • elderly people living on an inadequate income,
  • people with physical and mental disabilities,
  • young people without educational attainments
  • women in low-income families, and
  • migrants and ethnic minorities.

And we can add to the list:

  • low-income, single-parent families,
  • young people leaving care,
  • long-term unemployed,
  • gays and lesbians,
  • homeless people, and
  • prisoners and their families.

Moreover, the needs of children in families affected by any of the above circumstances must be taken into account.

A private study commissioned by the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust in 1993, into the attitudes and perceptions of people living and working in disadvantaged areas of Belfast, reflected the views of some of those affected by social exclusion:[5]

There's a big solvent abuse problem in the area and a lot of the older kids that are involved with that, their attitude is, so what, when you point out the dangers ... they just say, so what, what have we got to lose?[6]

I don't think that anybody looks to the future to tell you the truth. You just take things as they come. From day to day really, instead of looking to next week.[7]

I think that people only live for the moment. It's a big rat race out there and you have to live it one day at a time.[8]

You don't have peace of mind because when you go to sleep at night you don't know if you're going to have enough money to feed the kids or pay the next bill that's coming in.[9]

My daughter passed the 11+ and I would not send her to ……. I couldn't afford it. Plus I'm a single parent and there'd be the stigma and pressure because I couldn't afford the things they require.[10]

It puts your head away, just running about. Wakening up every night - you know what's going to happen the next day Nothing exciting will happen the next day You're just living to stand on the corner, come up here [to the centre], and down to the corner at night.[11]

While poverty, and the limits imposed by inadequate income, are a thread running through these comments, there is also isolation, a sense of powerlessness and even the stigma or discrimination to which the excluded may be subject. Thus social exclusion can be a broader concern than poverty.

Indeed social exclusion may not necessarily even be poverty-based - as in the case of some ethnic minority or gay communities. Nonetheless, poor households are likely to endure many forms of exclusion.

There is, of course, a diversity of experience of exclusion, depending on social perceptions of the excluded group and the attitude of the state. The EU observatory noted that there can be "a hierarchy of moral credibility, designating particular groups as deserving or undeserving". In the United Kingdom, images of single parents, the young unemployed and homeless people have been relayed through much of the popular media as the 'undeserving poor'. Other categories, such as the elderly, are regarded as somewhat more worthy. Others, however, like people with disabilities, may not be recognised at all. What is achievable, in terms of realistic demands for reform, may well depend on a group's position on the continuum of exclusion.

The impact of the social exclusion process becomes particularly acute when the local community confirms and supports state disapproval. Young people who are regarded as socially disruptive are often caught in this situation. By contrast, politically motivated prisoners in Northern Ireland, who may be regarded with reservation by the state, may be fully accepted within their own communities.

Spatially disadvantaged communities concentrate exclusion, with mutually-reinforcing multiple deprivations - poor housing, poor education, poor employment opportunities and poor services - characteristic of many inner urban areas and peripheral estates. In contrast, poor households in rural areas are less likely to be concentrated, and social exclusion may well be hidden down lanes and in villages.

The positive aspect of living in a disadvantaged urban estate was summed up by one interviewee in a community in Catholic west Belfast:

I think the only thing good about living in X are the people who actually live in X, your neighbours ... If you have no money, there's always someone who will lend you some money, if you're in trouble it's always your neighbours who will help you.[12]

A sentiment that was echoed in Protestant west Belfast:

"If one person is in trouble everyone rallies round to help - it depends what it is, but there's still a good community spirit here.[13]

The telling statement in the last remark may be 'it depends what it is': community solidarity is governed by norms, and there is always the potential for groups or families to transgress them. Even locally-based community action can exclude, say, stereotyped people in blocks of flats within estates. Indeed the voices of the most marginalised or unassertive within disadvantaged communities may remain unheard.[14] At stake is, first of all, confidence and, second, acceptance.

This problem may be even more acute in rural areas where marginalised individuals and groups hold a more ambiguous position. On the one hand, they may lack the solace of numbers and potential support of an urban setting, while on the other they may be consigned to a set position in a communal but socially inflexible context. Thus to achieve the active participation of socially excluded groups in a rural community may be even more difficult.

This was perhaps recognised in the recent reflections of an activist in the women's movement in rural Co Down:

Motivation is low ... difficult to attract women in ... low expectations of women in the area … resignation regarding life's opportunities ... feeling excluded I felt out and cut off.[15]

Evidence has shown, that given the necessary investment of time, resources, imagination and encouragement, excluded groups can be won to confidence and activism. But it can be a slow process, demanding of resources.

A final feature of the diversity of social exclusion is that, however reluctant communities may be to acknowledge the needs of 'their' marginalised groups, there is always the danger they will mobilise against excluded groupings viewed as outsiders: religious or racial minorities, travellers, or indeed homeless young people and single parents from outside the area, unconnected with its established families. The ability of deprived communities to exclude others has never been in doubt.

A further advantage of the concept of social exclusion is that it draws attention to a process as well as a fact:

Social exclusion is a much more dynamic concept of the processes of social change than 'poverty'. Social exclusion draws attention to its underlying causes as much to its manifestations. Social exclusion refers to the structures and processes which exclude persons and groups from their full participation in society. It explains that poverty does not just happen; it flows directly from the economic policies and choices which society makes about how resources are used and who has access to them … The notion of social exclusion has a strong policy focus: it is often the result of the ineffectiveness of policies, of the perverse effect of policies, and of the distorting outcomes of decisions.[16]

The EU observatory also cast an analytical eye over the thematic aspects of social exclusion. Again, a list of considerations can be summarised as:

  • income, taxation and social protection;
  • consumption and indebtedness;
  • educational attainment;
  • employment, unemployment and training;
  • working conditions;
  • housing and homelessness;
  • health; and
  • availability of social services and neighbourhood support.

In the context of all these themes, the observatory report posed the following questions:

  • What standard does each government! society set in combating social exclusion?
  • What social rights does the citizen have to employment, health, housing and so on - and how well defined are these rights?
  • How far, and why, are these rights restricted to certain groups of the population?

An additional query could be added:

  • What mechanisms and process are in place to allow individuals andlor groups to exercise their social rights?[17]

EU concepts, such as social rights and solidarity, seem far removed from recent British government policies, which Eithne McLaughlin has termed 'the politics of contempt'. Between 1978 and 1990, families in the bottom tenth income group in the UK saw a 14 per cent fall in real income, after housing costs; 40 per cent of households in this group were couples with children, and 9 per cent were lone parents. The two main reasons cited by Dr McLaughlin for this shift were increases in VAT and curbs - in value and access - on social security benefits.[18]

She placed social exclusion within the structural dimensions of multiple deprivation, as indicated by the diagrammatic representation overleaf:

This diagram can be summed up by an unemployed man from inner south Belfast:
It's day by day - till you die. You just go out and try and get something everyday - different jobs, some kind of money, or scheme, or whatever. You see your father and brother not getting any work and you know something is wrong. Then you go out and you can't get it and you think of your children coming behind you - what's going to happen to them? It's just going to be the same.[19]

In seeking to address this within the confines of current British government philosophy and policies, there is a distinct danger of a further feminisation of poverty and unemployment - a redistribution amongst the most disadvantaged. Monica McWilliams has noted the disincentive effect of the social security regulations against the wives of unemployed men taking up employment,[20] while the lack of affordable childcare in Northern Ireland provides a barrier to women with young children undertaking education, training or employment.

Understanding the course and impact of social exclusion in Northern Ireland entails recognising the diversity of its experience, for different groups of people in different circumstances. Not only does this underline the need to be sensitive to the multiple layers of marginalisation; it is essential if concrete excluded groups are to acquire an authentic voice. It is only when individuals and groups develop their own issues and views that the basis of critical perception and collective action is established.

The other crucial aspect, however, is the interaction between what can be effectively achieved in combating marginalisation at community level, and what must be demanded of regional and state policies. As to the latter, the strictures of J K Galbraith may be worth repeating:

There are many in the culture of contentment whose income is secure and who do not find recession or poor economic performance particularly uncomfortable. To this position the good economic society can make no concession. The discomfort and social disarray from unemployment and economic deprivation must always be in mind, as, also, the measures for their mitigation. The good society does not allow some of its people to feel useless, superfluous and deprived.[21]
Unless there is a shared concept of the good society', it is difficult to see how any strategy of social inclusion can be feasible. Instead, efforts may be restricted to alleviating the worst effects of social exclusion - while its causes remain in play.


1Brownlow Community Trust, Browniow Lives, Craigavon, 1993
2Cited in Combat Poverty Agency, Disability, Exclusion and Poverty, Dublin, 1993
3EU Observatory on National Policies to Combat Social Exclusion, Second Annual Report, European Commission (nGv), Brussels, 1991
4European Social Policy: A Way Forward for the Union, European Commission (DGV), Brussels, 1994 Evason, Woods and Birrell, A Qualitative Study of Disadvantage in Belfast, NIVT, 1993
6 interview with two groups active in communities, in ibid
7male unemployed group, Catholic west Belfast, ibid
8women with children, Protestant west Belfast, ibid
9interview with two groups active in communities, ibid
11male unemployed, Catholic inner south Belfast, ibid
12 male unemployed, Catholic west Belfast, ibid
13 women with children, 25-45, Protestant west Belfast, cited in ibid
14 Richard Jay's and Quintin Oliver's chapters in this report demonstrate how 'community action' does not offer any simple panacea for social exclusion
15Rural Community Network, Study of Women's Groups in Rural Areas in Northern Ireland: A Discussion Paper, Cookstown, 1994
16Combat Poverty Agency, Combating Exclusion: Lessons from the Third EU Poverty Programme in Ireland, Dublin, 1994
18'Unemployment: the politics of contempt?, in E McLaughlin ed, Beyond the Statistics, Co-operation North, Belfast, 1993
19 unemployed man from Catholic inner south Belfast, in Evason et al, op cit
20M McWilliams, 'Women's Paid Work and the Sexual Division of Labour', in C Davies and E McLaughlin eds, Women, Employment and Social Policy in Northern Ireland: A Problem Postponed?, Policy Research Institute, Belfast, 1991
21 'The Good Society Considered: the economic dimension', Journal of Law and Society, Cardiff, 1994

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