In England poverty is called social exclusion. Does it make a difference?

Jul 17, 2013

Credit Gabe Photos / Flickr

Almost exactly two years ago, I crossed the Atlantic and took up residence in a land of rainstorms and rainbows to do a Masters in Social Policy. I landed in England in part because I was interested in social issues, and I wanted to learn more about how different governments address these challenges.

Last week, after taking my final exam, I got on an airplane to head to Michigan and start working with State of Opportunity.

Since arriving back, I have been reflecting on some of the differences in how the US and England approach issues of deprivation. One major difference is that when the US discusses poverty, England discusses social exclusion.

Social exclusion is a term we rarely hear in the US, but it is incredibly common in England and across Europe. It is a common term but also a very slippery one. Its meaning is hotly debated. In my understanding, social exclusion means an individual does not feel fully included in their society. This could be for economic reasons but various other factors are also taken into consideration.

In England, employment status is a major focus of social exclusion research and policy. Employment is important because it provides an income but also because it facilitates a feeling of self-worth and provides a social network. These are all things that help a person become part of the society in which they live. England’s efforts to reduce social exclusion also emphasize lone parents – which is their term for single parents – because it can be socially challenging and isolating to raise a child single handedly.

Interestingly, England tends not to discuss issues of race. I found the English to be even more reticent than Americans to openly discuss this issue. In my experience, they seemed to think of racism and racial exclusion as an American issue. Their social exclusion agenda focuses on social class instead.

Social exclusion’s slippery nature makes it hard to translate it from an idea into concrete policies and specific strategies. But I think it is still a valuable concept to consider when thinking about issues of poverty, opportunity, and life chances.

First, it is multi-dimensional. Social exclusion is not just about money. It considers how a person feels and how they are treated by their society. This allows social exclusion to consider all sorts of human needs, such as a person’s need to be part of a community and to feel dignified when interacting with others.

Second, it is relational. Social exclusion cannot exist in isolation. A person must be excluded from something – often it is from their surrounding society. This underscores the importance of the rest of society. I like that social exclusion aims to stop blaming the person who is in the tough situation and instead draw the whole society – the excluders – in to address the issue.

Third, it is dynamic. Ideally, social exclusion is temporary as people are included into their society. We all know the harsh reality about social mobility. But I like that social exclusion offers a hopeful perspective. To me, it is a call to action – to see what we can do to break the cycle of poverty.

While the US has not yet adopted the concept of social exclusion, I have seen many of its best features reflected in State of Opportunity’s work. They acknowledge the complexity of poverty. They understand the importance of capturing the whole human experience – not just the economic situation.  And they see the value of viewing it as a challenge for all of society to address. I am thrilled to be joining State of Opportunity this summer, on the blog, as I explore what academics are researching and debating in the field of poverty.