Socially included or constrained to work? Poverty and welfare policies in Britain.

By Alessio Bertolini (Staff Writer) 


“Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

- Aristotle, Politics

Social inclusion has become a popular concept in discourses about poverty, in developed countries, in recent decades. Compared to previous ideas about material poverty, which dominated the poverty discourse up until the 1980s, and which are still prevalent in developing countries, the concept of social inclusion has been viewed as more appealing in describing poverty in contemporary post-industrial societies. The idea behind it is that in affluent societies where basic needs are (mostly) satisfied, poverty has to be reconceptualised in terms of exclusion from rights and activities shared by the majority of the population.

In principle, this does not mean that anyone who does not participate in activities that can be considered ‘mainstream’ is socially excluded (you can always choose to live on a mountain without any contact with the external world!) but that anyone who is unable to participate in social institutions and activities because of material and non-material constraints is at risk of social exclusion.  Somebody can be excluded either because she lacks the formal right to access (think, for instance, of an illegal immigrant’s child who is refused access to primary school) or because the resources she has are not sufficient to grant full access to those (e.g. somebody who cannot afford a health treatment due to lack of funds). I said full, because according to many authors[i] very few people are completely excluded from most rights and activities, whilst many may be granted partial access to some and be partially excluded from others.

It has also been acknowledged that exclusion in one social realm may lead to exclusion in another (after all, an alcohol dependent individual, who does not receive proper counselling and health treatment, may find it difficult to find or retain a job) and that public institutions should address social exclusion through coordination and integration of previously separated policies.

Thus, the idea of social exclusion reconfigures poverty as a social rather than an individual matter. This idea of human beings distances itself from the homo economicus of most neo-liberal thinkers as well as from the atomistic view of society epitomized by the Thatcherian ‘There is no such thing as society’. It instead draws upon the idea of men as social animals, who are able to flourish and progress only when partaken in social networks, integrated into social institutions and engaged in social activities.

However, which relevant activities, rights and institutions somebody has to be excluded from order to become socially excluded, is highly disputed. Since the concept has travelled from the theoretical (unfortunately sometimes even utopian) world of academics to the desks of politicians, many possible forms of exclusion have been suggested. Politics, education, health, social security, consumption, culture are all relevant social realms from which somebody can be excluded. Are they though?

When The Labour Party came to power in 1997 one of the first things the new Government established was the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU). After almost two decades of Conservative neo-liberal propaganda on the merits of individualism, the use of this new concept by the Blair’s Government was more than welcome by many social policy experts. In the establishment of the SEU, social exclusion was defined as:

‘What can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, poor health and family breakdown’.[ii]

Moreover, the government recognised the limitations in addressing each issue separately and the need for ‘joined-up solutions to joined-up problems’[iii] . In the following few years the fight against poverty and social exclusion entered the headlines of many policy papers.

However, the government had another concept filling its agenda. The so called ‘Third Way’ [iv] was meant to find a balance between the (at that time!) successful neo-liberal economic policies and the need for more left-wing social policies. The concept of a Third Way was an integral part of a process rebranding of the Labour party that was thoughtfully pursued by Tony Blair and many other Labour MPs in the wake of a series of political defeats against the Tories. The Third Way entailed a reconfiguration of both welfare and economic policies in order to make them work synergically, rather than in opposition. A new welfare system was needed, a system that could better serve the real needs of the people without the perceived inefficiencies of the old one.

How about social exclusion? As the Social Security Minister, Frank Field declared:

‘The current system led to growing poverty and dependence, not independence. It has fuelled social division and exclusion, not helped in the creation of a decent society".

The concept of social exclusion seemed to perfectly fit in the Labour Agenda. A new idea of poverty (more holistic, more socially-related) to be dealt with a brand new welfare system (more efficient, more individually-tailored). At this point there was nothing to argue, everything was clear and consistent. But what happened in practice?

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Despite a number of innovative policy proposals aiming at policy integration, and a number of government reports on exclusion-related subjects, the issue of social exclusion has mainly been interpreted as exclusion from one main social activity: Work. The various New Deals implemented during the Labour government, although explicitly targeting deprived areas and people with multiple disadvantages, were mainly intended to bring people into work with little attention to the actual other forms of exclusion they might have suffered from. Furthermore, little attention has been paid to job quality, with the result of employing people mainly in short-term, unstable, low-skilled jobs with little career prospects.

Same applies to the Welfare Reform of 2007 which, among others, introduced the Employment and Support Allowance in substitution of the previous Incapacity Benefit, with the aim of making ‘incapable’ people suitable for work. All these reforms have mainly resulted in the reduction of the financial burden for the State, with no attention to the short-term and even more long-term prospects of social inclusion. Moreover, instead of reconceiving poverty as a social rather than an individual matter, the strong conditionality applied to most welfare benefits have de facto shifted responsibility from the State to individuals. Given that the State gives you the opportunity to be included (in work) it becomes your fault if you fail to do so.

The ‘Third Way’ has mainly been used to legitimize workfare strategies, and the integration of people into the labour market has been vaunted as the only way out of social exclusion. Not surprisingly, in the years before the Great Recession, employment rates grew but poverty rates hardly fell. Moreover, in-work poverty increased to historically record high[v].

And what happened next? The Conservatives, who came to power in 2010, made little use of the term social exclusion. However, they have created a brand new term that draws upon similar ideas, ‘The Big Society’. Aware of the unappealing idea of extreme individualism of the Thatcher era, the Conservative Government has used the concept of ‘The Big Society’ to suggest a new, more ‘social’ Britain, where local communities are empowered and the inclusion of individuals into local activities and institutions is facilitated. In the meantime, severe cuts have been carried out in almost all sectors of the welfare system, conditionality in access to welfare benefits has been tightened, and workfare strategies have been fostered, with the idea that in this way ‘’people can see that the clear rewards from taking all types of work outweigh the risks”[vi]. Again, no attention whatsoever is paid on actual social inclusion whilst the burden of responsibility for failure of inclusion is shifted even more towards individuals. Work is seen as the only (easy) answer to exclusion (no matter which type of work) and if people do not comply it is because they either do not need, or do not deserve, to be included.

In the Britain of the 21st century, it seems that if you are not included in the ‘Big Society’ you really have to be either a god, or a beast.

[i] See, for instance, Hills, J., Le Grand, J., and Piachaud D. (2002), Understanding Social Exclusion, Oxford, Oxford University Press

[ii] Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2004), The Social Exclusion Unit, London, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Publications

[iii] Ibid

[iv] For a detailed descriptions of the theoretical foundations of the ‘Third Way’ see Giddens (1998) The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Cambridge, The Polity Press

[v] Fraser N., Gutièrrez R. and Peña-Casas R. (2011), Working Poverty In Europe. A Comparative Approach, Houndsmill, Palgrave Macmillan

[vi] Department for Work and Pensions (2010), 21st Century Welfare, London