What is social exclusion, why is it relevant to social work and how have attempts to address the issues associated with it influenced social work practice and its value base?
The idea of citizenship conferring rights and privileges and defining boundaries can be traced back to Diogenes of Sinope in 3rd century B.C. Greece (Navia,L, 2005). However, the term ‘social exclusion’ is a comparatively new one, first utilised in France in the 1970’s. It was used to describe the marginalized population or those that were outcast. It included people that were discriminated against (e.g. the disabled) and those that were not citizens (e.g. an asylum seeker). The French political system was and remains a very different animal to that of the UK. There is a much greater emphasis on state support of citizens and social cohesion and less emphasis on free market drivers to the delivery of public services. In the latter half of the last century social policy in the UK had concentrated on lifting those people close to the breadline out of (relative) poverty. Political leaders claimed that poverty in the UK had been eradicated. In reality financial inequality was in fact rising and the number of people living in poverty increased. The concept of social exclusion spread from France and embedded itself in European social policy, notably in the Maastricht Treaty of 1996. In 1997 Labour was elected in the UK and the concept quickly became a central policy of the new Government although neither it nor poverty was often mentioned in their election manifesto. The Social Exclusion Unit was set up in 1997. Its remit was to provide strategic advice and policy analysis in a drive against social exclusion. The SEU published a series of reports on five key issues: neighbourhood renewal; rough sleepers; teenage pregnancy; young people not in education, training or employment, and truancy and school exclusion. The SEU outlined social exclusion as:
"A shorthand label for what can happen when individuals or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown” (SEU , 1997). This became the standard Cabinet Office and organisational definition despite later amended by the SEU (SEU, 2001; SEU, 2004). This definition does demonstrate that factors that contribute to social exclusion may be both material and discursive, however, this is only one definition of the complex and multi-dimensional concept of social exclusion. Its interpretation can be criticised as being too narrow. E.g. it lacks an educational dimension, beyond vocational training, and a wider sense of the cultural isolation that can be a barrier in preventing people from achieving their full potential. Although a primary driver of social exclusion is poverty and low income, this is not exclusively the case. The process of social exclusion covers a wider range of deprived individuals, families, groups and neighbourhoods who as a consequence suffer reduced life chances. As well as the poor it includes people with homes and an income, such as those that are discriminated against, or have low educational attainment or live in a depleted environment which provide that for a significant part of life they are not, or are not fully able to, engage with society in a way the majority of citizens are (Pierson, 2010). Vincent adds that social exclusion may be an active process in which institutions and groups ‘shut out’ others, fully or partially, from access to political, social, cultural and economic participation, whether they mean to or not (Vincent,J, 2005). The nature of the UK broad concept of social exclusion is itself problematic and allows varied interpretations of society and its problems to co-exist. A seminal work (Levitas, 2005) identified three discourses, redistributionist (RED), moral underclass (MUD) and social integrationist (SID). These are all valid but have different...
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