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Social Exclusion’s Relationship With Poverty

Is The Term ‘Social Exclusion’ Just A New Euphemism For Poverty?


In some quarters the terms social exclusion and poverty are used almost interchangeably. This has led some writers to question whether social exclusion is a catch all term, and a new euphemism for poverty. In recent decades unemployment levels have risen dramatically and continue to do so. This has led to a rise in the number of those who are long-term unemployed. It has also meant that there are now a large number of people dependent on benefits. During the same period social changes and successive government policies have served to widen the gap between rich and poor. Field (1996) believes that under the Conservatives, there were fundamental contradictions in social security policy which continued up until 1997 when John Major was voted out of power. Conservatives vowed to get people back to work and to reduce the role of the ‘nanny state’. The Government targeted benefits, which became means tested, thus increasing dependency and putting people into a poverty trap from which it was difficult to escape. This Field (1996) contends is the major contributory factor to social exclusion and has, he states, led to the development of an underclass whereby some people are denied the social and citizenship rights enjoyed by other members of society.

This paper will examine what is meant by social exclusion and compare this with some debates about poverty to assess whether the term social exclusion might be regarded as a new euphemism for poverty.

Social Exclusion

The Social exclusion unit was originally set up in December 1997. The Government’s approach, in setting up the unit is to find ways of tackling what they call the intractable problems of teenage pregnancy, deprived neighbourhoods and troublesome behaviour. The Unit aims to achieve this through the use of what they term a connective approach. New Labour’s social exclusion unit has produced a number of reports on the root causes of social exclusion and on initiatives intended to tackle them. Government documents[1] maintain that people who are economically disadvantaged are also liable to be disadvantaged in other areas. They may live in areas with the poorest housing, and have less access to decent schools and health services. Poverty is not just going without ‘things’ The Child Poverty Action Group has identified the fact that the poorest members of society suffer from poor health, stress and stigma. Theorists speak of the poverty trap because people become stuck in a never ending cycle of making do and mending in situations where people would choose differently, were they given the option.

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Poverty curtails freedom of choice. The freedom to eat as you wish, to go where and when you like, to seek the leisure pursuits or political activities which others accept; all are denied to those without the resources…poverty is most comprehensively understood as a state of partial citizenship (Golding, ed. 1986 quoted in Browne, 1998,p.61)

Social exclusion is not restricted to the poor in society. Traditional families in rural areas may be excluded from leisure opportunities and cut off from basic services such as public transport (Giddens, 2001). Government policy often gives with one hand and takes back with another. On the one hand it initiates drives for social inclusion, many of them aimed at young people, on the other, there have been moves to restrict the amount of Local Authority Housing to young, lone mothers and the curtailment of benefits for those who are not regarded as actively seeking employment. Some of this is related to other Government policies, not least the pledge to strengthen families. The result has been that an increasing number of young, unmarried mothers and their children live with their parents thus shifting the responsibility back into the private sphere.

The 2004 government report on tackling social exclusion maintains that exclusion is a generational problem and that those who have parents living on the margins of society are more likely to be among the socially excluded in society. The reasons for social exclusion are connected. Thus, poverty, unemployment, and a lack of education are all facets of the same problem. Government recognises that they cannot tackle social exclusion unless they adopt an approach that deals with all these issues together (ODPM, 2004).

The report maintains that its efforts are paying off and that there is a reduction in the number of households where no adult is working and that what they see as the seemingly intractable problems of single parents and youth offending are being addressed (ODPM, 2004:6). It should be noted here that while the Government expresses concern, and pledges to help excluded groups, at the same time it labels them and crime and illegitimacy become increasingly linked with poverty in public consciousness.


The Department for Work and Pensions Website published a paper on 8th April 2004, it states that the Government is determined to tackle poverty and its causes, not just its symptoms and that this will involve joined-up Government action across the board.[2] Definitions of poverty are highly contested however, and some sort of measure is needed if any practical application is to be achieved. The concepts absolute and relative poverty, are most commonly used, and raise heated debate as scholars fail to agree on the issue. Absolute poverty is the most minimum standard of resources that people could be said to need and is defined by the poverty line or poverty rate. Because standards of living vary widely between countries the poverty rate is calculated as relative to the standards that apply in a given country (Giddens, 2001). This is the poverty index. There are a number of indicators that are used to measure poverty in Britain and to assess whether a person is living in absolute or relative poverty and the poverty index is widely used in policy decision making. This is problematic because Government measures of poverty are taken as relative to the household incomes of the whole population. The Institute for Fiscal Studies argues that this:

obscures the true picture …(because)..Previous predictions were too optimistic because they largely did not take into account the fact that the government’s target measure of child poverty is a relative one (Guardian,25/6/03).[3]

Since Townsend’s work in the 1970s many theorists argue that there are large numbers of people in Britain who live in a state of relative poverty. One of the problems with speaking of relative poverty is that societies do not remain the same, rather they change and develop and with this is the need for understandings of relative poverty to change also. Western society in particular is becoming increasingly more affluent and standards of relative poverty are adjusted upwards in response to this (Giddens,2001). The British Medical Journal (2000) report looked at absolute and relative child poverty in developed countries where household income is more than fifty percent lower than the average. The report found that in the league table of relative child poverty one of the four bottom places was held by the UK. Nickell (2003) contends that since 1979 increased unemployment coupled with a rise in benefit payments and earnings that are index linked to prices rather than wages, has resulted in a massive increase in the number of people in the UK who are living in relative poverty.[4]

The concept of relative poverty causes problems in a number of areas rather than using household income as the regulator it might be better if statisticians calculated the prices of basic goods and services (Daily Telegraph 27/08/02). Another approach to measuring relative poverty is through people’s perceptions of what constitutes the necessities of life. The work of Mack and Lansley (1985, 1992) identified a number of categories that were considered to be necessary to modern day life. There were twenty six things that most respondents considered important and included new clothes, heating, a bath and indoor toilet. Relative poverty was thus measured by the presence or absence of those things. The research found that there was a rise in the number of people living in poverty in the 1980s, this was defined by the lack of three or more of the basic necessities. Between 1983 and 1990 when the two studies were undertaken the number of people living in poverty rose from 7.5 million to 11 million and those living in severe poverty (lacking more than 7 items) from 2.6 to 3.5 million (Mack and Lansley, 1992). Poverty is also defined by people’s ability or inability to participate in social activities such as visits to the cinema or school trips.

Social Exclusion and Poverty

In recent years there has been a concentration on social exclusion, which does not look at poverty simply in terms of a lack of material resources, but at the wider picture of people’s ability to participate in society. The 2004 Report maintains that social exclusion is inter-generational and that such families are more likely to be headed by a lone mother, more inclined to be on the fringes of petty crime and to be long term unemployed. Children from these families often follow the same patterns as their parents and grandparents, There is, however, little concrete evidence to suggest that children of socially excluded parents always follow that pattern, there are many who do not. Unemployment, single mothers and homelessness are mentioned alongside rising crime levels, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour. Chambez (2001) Argues that single parent households are very often among the poorest. English speaking countries have the highest number of single parents, and those who are working are among the lowest paid. Employment chances are still limited for women with children because employers expect that motherhood is more important than a career (Walby, 1990). These are parents who are attempting to be self-reliant and while family working tax credits may seem like a good idea it is, arguably the case, that they serve to encourage a dependency culture for people who might prefer to be independent. Lewis (1992) has argued that Britain is a strong male breadwinner state with gendered welfare policies, for example its inadequate childcare provision.

While no effort is now made to stop women working, the assumption is that women will be secondary wage earners and, despite the large numbers of women in paid employment, they tend to be in short, part-time, low status work (Lewis,1992:165).

As Pierson (1998) contends women (and in many cases their dependent children), because of the way in which society works against their proper enfranchisement, are more reliant on the welfare state. This is a state which looks on them with less favour than it does the masculine majority because the latter are generally in more secure, long-term, and better paid employment. Such and Walker (2004) contend that public and policy debate on the lives of children and the family has increasingly centred around the idea of responsibility. The Prime Minister has gone on record as saying that people need to be responsible for themselves and their families and that New Labour was offering a hand-up rather than a hand-out. The Conservative Government had been voted out because they had failed to act and had not cared about the disadvantaged in society. Their values were wrong and the time had come for a new set of values where the better off and the disadvantaged worked together. There is a new underclass in Britain Tony Blair has said, who are cut off from mainstream society. He argued for a better society one where everyone was included, provided that if they wanted to get something out then they had to put something in. On the one hand Blair was handing out a vision of a utopian Britain while at the same time implying that if people were on the margins of life then by and large it was from their own rootless morality and they needed to act responsibly in order to be part of the new society that New Labour would create. What was termed anti-social behaviour is spoken of in the same light as criminal behaviour and Blair said that these things would be rooted out. The following excerpt from an early speech by the Prime Minister is, arguably, a central factor behind much of the Government’s agenda to those it deems to be on the margins:

Now, at the close of the twentieth century, the decline of old industries and the shift to an economy based on knowledge and skills has given rise to a new class: a workless class. In many countries- not just Britain-a large minority is playing no role in the formal economy, dependent on Benefits and the black economy. In 1979 only one in twelve non-pensioner households had no-one bringing in a wage, today one in five are in that position (Blair, T. 1997 no page number)

This kind of rhetoric perpetuates the stereotypical view that people who live on benefits are work shy and thus quite happy to live on handouts. Walker (1994) argues that public conceptions that people on benefits have taken the easy option are misplaced, in the majority of cases life becomes a greater struggle. She contends that:

Despite sensational newspaper headlines, living on social assistance is not an option most people would choose if they were offered a genuine alternative. Most find themselves in that position because of some traumatic event in their lives; loss of a job, loss of a partner or the onset of ill health (Walker, 1994:9).

The Government’s 2004 report on social exclusion conflates it with poverty. In this way the Government resorts to nineteenth century views of the undeserving poor. Social exclusion has come to be a catch all term for anything that authority sees as detrimental to the workings of a capitalist society. It has become the new euphemism for poverty because in capitalist societies poverty has always been regarded as some sort of crime.


Poverty means that people are unable to afford the goods that are associated with an acceptable standard of living, social exclusion on the other hand, refers to more than the lack of resources to obtain commodities, it is, rather, a process of being shut out, totally or in part, from the social, cultural, political and economic systems which contribute to a person’s integration into society (Haralambos et al, 2000). Nolan and Whelan (1996) contend that,

Talking of social exclusion rather than poverty highlights the gap between those who are active members of society and those who are forced to the fringe, the increasing risks of social disintegration, and the fact that, for the persons concerned and for society, this is a process of change and not a fixed or static situation (Nolan and Whelan, 1996:190).

The effects of social exclusion, the 2004 Report further maintains, result in huge costs to society and to the economy. It would seem therefore that Government concerns over social exclusion are motivated primarily by budgetary concerns. Making social exclusion the new euphemism for poverty effectively criminalises those who in many instances are poor as a result of successive Government policies rather than through any fault of their own.


Alcock, P. 1997 2nd ed. Understanding Poverty. London, Macmillan.

Blackman, S. 1997 “Destructing a Giro: a critical and ethnographic study of the youth underclass” in Macdonald R. ed. 1997 Youth, the Underclass, and Social Exclusion. London, Routledge

Browne, K.1998. (2nd ed.) An Introduction to Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Chambez, C. 2001. “Lone-Parent Families in Europe: A Variety of Economic and Social Circumstances” Social Policy and Administration 2001, 35, 6, Dec, 658-671

Field, F. 1996. Stakeholder Welfare. London, IEA

Giddens, A. 2001. (4th ed). Sociology. Cambridge, Polity Press

Haralambos et al 2000. 5th ed Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. London, Collins

Mack, J. and Lansley,S. 1985. Poor Britain. London, George Allen and Unwin.

Mack, J. and Lansley,S. 1992. Breadline Britain 1990s The Findings of the Television Series. London, London Weekend Television.

Mack, J. and Lansley,S. 1985. Poor Britain. London, George Allen and Unwin.

Mack, J. and Lansley,S. 1992. Breadline Britain 1990s The Findings of the Television Series. London, London Weekend Television.

Nickell, S. RES conference paper April 2003 Poverty and Worklessness in Britain

Nolan, B. and Wheelan, C. 1996 Resources: Deprivation and Poverty. Oxford, Clarendon Press

Such, E. and Walker, R. 2004 “Being responsible and responsible beings: children’s understanding of responsibility” Children and Society 18 (3) Jun 2004, pp.231-242

Walby, S. 1986. Patriarchy at Work. Cambridge: Polity.

Walker,C. 1994 “Managing Poverty”. Sociology Review April, 1994 p.9

The Daily Telegraph 27th August 2002

The Guardian Newspaper 25th June 2003

Townsend, P. 1979. Poverty in the United Kingdom. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Blair, T. 1997 The Will to Winhttp://www.socialexclusionunit.gov.uk/downloaddoc.asp?id=59 (no page numbering) http://www.socialexclusionunit.gov.uk/downloaddoc.asp?id=44 Mental Health and Social Exclusion Consultation Document

ODPM 2004. Count Me In http://www.socialexclusionunit.gov.uk/downloaddoc.asp?id=

ODPM. 2004 Tackling Social Exclusion: Taking Stock and Looking to the Future http://www.socialexclusionunit.gov.uk/downloaddoc.asp?id=13 page 17

Community Care, 2005 communitycare.co.uk/articles/article.asp?liarticleid=48388&liSectionID=30&sKeys=anti+social+behaviour&liParentID=14th April (no page numbers).



[2] http://www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/dwp/2004/childpov-response/govt-response.pdf

[3] Appendix One

[4] http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp0579.pdf Nickell, S. RES conference paper April 2003


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