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Social inclusion - what is it good for?


In recent weeks, social inclusion has become a topic of some debate. This follows reports that, subsequent to his appointment to the social inclusion portfolio in last year’s front-bench reshuffle, Mark Butler was unable to define what social inclusion means.

In response to an article on social inclusion by Butler published late last year, Senator Mitch Fifield and former Keating Government Minister Gary Johns both criticised the term as being devoid of substance. Fifield went on to propose that the Social Inclusion Board should be abolished, with the $3 million annual cost of the Board being allocated towards the $6.5 billion annual cost of a disability insurance scheme.

The above comments beg the question: What is meant by the term social inclusion, and is it as inconsequential in policy making terms as Fifield and Johns suggest?

To be fair to Butler, neither the term social inclusion nor the related term social exclusion have been clearly defined. The meaning of social inclusion varies very much according to the national and ideological contexts in which it is used. Mark Butler is correct, then, in noting that social inclusion means different things to different people. This is in large part because the concept of social inclusion lacks a coherent theoretical core—that is, it is not based on a unified body of knowledge and theory.

That said, it is nevertheless possible to identify certain features of social inclusion that are generally agreed upon. The concept of social inclusion is typically concerned with:

• Disadvantaged people’s lack of opportunity to participate in social, economic or political life—usually as a result of a lack of necessary resources, rights, goods and services, and

• The multi-dimensional nature of social exclusion and deprivation, with social exclusion seen as being the result of a combination of linked and mutually reinforcing problems such as unemployment, limited education, low income, poor housing, poor health and family breakdown.

This second feature differentiates the idea of social inclusion from that of poverty, which focuses more narrowly on a lack of financial well-being and income as the source of disadvantage. Hence, a social inclusion approach to addressing disadvantage requires that the various related elements of deprivation be tackled through ‘joined-up’ approaches, rather than simply by making income transfers to disadvantaged people.

The idea of social inclusion has been criticised for reasons other than its definitional vagueness. For example, it has been argued that social inclusion is

• focused narrowly on participation in paid employment, at the expense of other possible forms of inclusion

• limited in scope and ambition to ‘getting people over the line of social inclusion’, rather than attempting to address the causes of social exclusion, and

• based on a top-down approach that treats those people who are being included as passive objects of policy (and thus, ironically, excluding them)

The above criticisms call into question the value of using social inclusion as a framework for social policy. This is because, for one thing, it is not clear that social inclusion adds terribly much to existing approaches to social policy. Also, by virtue of its very logic, social inclusion could actually serve to limit the ambitions of policy-makers and citizens where it comes to addressing social disadvantage. Finally, the concept offers no concrete or specific mechanism to those who are thought of as excluded for overcoming their exclusion.

Despite these substantial limitations, the concept of social inclusion is not without merit and, as this Parliamentary Library paper argues, it has the potential to be developed along more fruitful lines—largely through a focus on participation.

The idea of participation is central to many attempts to define social inclusion. Further, a number of authors have argued that it is participation rather than inclusion that should be the main focus of efforts to address social exclusion. This is largely because it is the active logic of participation rather than the relatively passive logic of inclusion that is more likely to help tackle social disadvantage and marginality. An approach based around participation assumes that people have a need and a right to participate in society and not just the workforce (rather than simply to ‘be included’), and that, where necessary, resources should be provided to facilitate this participation. But this then raises the question of how this participation should be structured and guaranteed into the future.

In the paper, we suggested that the idea of social citizenship may provide an answer to this question and that in doing so it could be used to provide the grounding for a more substantive social inclusion agenda.

According to influential 20th century British sociologist T. H. Marshall, modern citizenship may be understood as a status that is bestowed on all those who are full members of a community. By virtue of this status, all members are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed. Social citizenship refers to the social rights, obligations and institutions that play a role in developing and supporting equality of status in the community. Thus, social citizenship is concerned with the provision of resources (such as education) and with social services (such as public health and housing services) that are necessary for membership and participation in society. As such, social citizenship can be seen as being central to the full exercise of citizenship, along with the civil and political rights that it helps to support.

The key point is that the idea of social citizenship could lend weight to a social inclusion agenda by guaranteeing that disadvantaged people are provided with the resources necessary for participation, as a right rather than as state benevolence. But, more than this, based as it is on the idea of social rights and responsibilities, social citizenship could also provide a framework for people’s active participation in shaping the society in which they live as well as its future form. This is because social citizenship focuses attention away from ‘who gets what’ and onto questions about how current arrangements might be renegotiated so as to achieve equality of status and a better future for all citizens.

The proposed national disability insurance scheme provides something of an example of what a citizenship-based social inclusion policy approach might look like. For one thing, the scheme would, like citizenship, be universal in its coverage, recognising that all people share the risk of experiencing disability at some point in their lives. The scheme is also driven by the rationale that people with disability have a right to participate in the fullest possible sense in all aspects of society, and that society has a responsibility to empower them to do so. Further, this right to participate is one that is being claimed by people with disability, with the proposed scheme having been the result of bottom-up activism. The challenge of a citizenship-based social inclusion framework would be to consider how similar policy initiatives might be developed and applied in relation to other groups of people who suffer from disadvantage and marginalisation.

In short, locating social inclusion within a social citizenship framework could help to address those criticisms of the concept outlined above and to broaden its scope and ambition. At the same time, through its focus on bringing about change at the micro-level through joined-up models of service delivery and a more sophisticated understanding of the multiple sources of disadvantage social inclusion could complement the concept of social citizenship, which does not concern itself with such matters.