Judith Sloan wants the term banned, the editors of the Australian think it’s bureaucratic gibberish and even the new minister for social inclusion seems unsure about what it means. So what is social inclusion?
For the New Labour politicians who popularised the term social exclusion in the UK, the excluded are those whose behaviour makes them a burden on other citizens and the state. Social inclusion is about helping the excluded become contributing members of the community.
Early in his first term, Tony Blair began using the term as a synonym for underclass. Social inclusion policies aim to change behaviour rather than redistribute resources. This makes it possible for left-of-centre politicians to attack entrenched disadvantage while at the same time promising not to increase taxes.
So as Norwegian academic Else Øyen explains : "neither social exclusion, nor social inclusion, are analytical concepts. They are political concepts, and they have been introduced for political reasons." The key to understanding the terms social exclusion and social inclusion is to look at the problems politicians are using these terms to solve. Reading documents by academics and bureaucrats only leads to confusion.
The political problem
Going into the 1997 election, Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown promised that Labour would not raise income taxes for five years if it won. "The Tories were pole-axed", writes Philip Gould in his book The Unfinished Revolution, "It was as though a political mallet had been smashed through their heads."
Based on opinion polling and focus group research, New Labour strategists were convinced that tax was the party’s achilles heel. To win in 1997 and hold office, they needed to persuade voters that the party had changed — that New Labour would not raise income taxes, even on the rich.
According to Gould, voters believed that those who worked hard and behaved responsibly should be rewarded. Fairness was about contribution and reward, not greater equality of income. In her book Talking to a Brick Wall, opinion researcher Deborah Mattinson writes about swing voters sense of alienation from politics:
They believe Labour looks after the poor (and is a soft touch for the undeserving), and the Conservatives look after the rich and that no one looks out for people like them.
These voters felt they were working hard but were being ignored. Feeling economically insecure, they worry about how they are going to provide for their families. They think Labour is taking their taxes and spending them on immigrants, teenage mothers and welfare cheats. As Mattinson writes, they see society as made up of three groups: "the rich, themselves and the undeserving poor."
When Blair took office in late 1990s, many voters believed that most unemployed people could get a job if they really wanted one. There was a feeling that too many people who could work were choosing to live on benefits instead. While most voters supported payments for the elderly and people with disabilities, there was a feeling that joblessness had become part of the culture for some families. And associated with joblessness were a range of other problems such as single parenthood, truancy, crime, alcohol abuse and homelessness.
At the same time as it needed to hold the support of swing voters, New Labour also needed to assure supporters it was not just a warmer, cuddlier version of the Conservative Party. Lifting up the disadvantaged was a core part of Labour identity. Because declaring war on poverty would create expectations of redistribution funded by large increases in government spending, Labour needed a new way of framing the problem of disadvantage.
The constraints on policy were clear. The government needed to help jobless families improve their incomes but it couldn’t do that by handing out money or anything else that might be seen as a reward for bad behaviour. Increases in income must be earned through work.
Before the election, Tony Blair spoke about the underclass. And in a press conference in Denver not long after winning office, he spoke about people who were long term unemployed and shut out of society. Asked if this was the problem of the underclass he said:
… the way to deal with the problems of the underclass is education and welfare reform. You have got to give people the education they require otherwise they are never going to be able to compete in today’s market.
‘Underclass’ was the term economist Gunnar Myrdal had used in the early 1960s to describe entrenched disadvantage in the United States. Myrdal argued that technological change had eroded demand for less educated, less skilled workers. Unable to educate or retrain themselves, these excluded workers become fatalistic. They adapt to slum life seeing no alternative for themselves or their children. When children drop out of school parents make no effort to stop them. A culture of joblessness and criminality begins to take hold.
Blair and his party had adopted a very similar view about what was happening in Britain and soon after winning office they found a new term to describe the problem — ‘social exclusion’. According to Peter Mandelson, the Tories had left a legacy of "people who have lost hope, trapped in fatalism. They are today’s and tomorrow’s underclass, shut out from society."
The term social exclusion was already being used in the European Union. According to Else Øyen:
The original concept launched by the European Union’s Targeted Socio-Economic Research (TSER) programme was poverty. Apparently the politicians found this concept too loaded, so they asked for another concept and were satisfied with social exclusion/inclusion.
For politicians, the problem of an underclass or socially excluded population within an affluent, otherwise well-functioning society demanded a different solution to the problem of poverty. And it was a solution that fitted better with the political constraints on governments like the UK’s new left-of-centre government.
Constraints on spending ruled out redistribution. But if jobless families were able to solve the problem by overcoming their fatalism, taking advantage of education and training opportunities and moving into to work, then redistribution would not be necessary. With more people in work and paying taxes, welfare to work programs might even pay for themselves.
If existing government programs turned out to be hugely inefficient, then intelligent reforms might achieve better outcomes at little extra cost. For example, if it turned out that problem families were receiving services from a large number of agencies but that none of these agencies were talking to each other, then ‘joining up’ services might get better results than pouring yet more money into an inefficient set of bureaucratic program ‘silos’.
And if issues like lack of skills, poor health, family breakdown and unemployment could be prevented, then the problem might be solved at a much lower cost than waiting to address them later. High cost interventions could be seen as ‘investment’ rather than spending. And if it happened that most of the problem families lived in a handful of neighbourhoods like large housing estates then preventative programs would be more affordable. The problem could be solved through a small number of geographically targeted interventions.
None of these policies could be seen as rewards for people who refused to act responsibly or contribute to society. The government would help people prepare for work, send their children to school and move off the streets. But it would also demand responsibility. There would be no handouts for people who refused to do the right thing.
And this is how social exclusion took hold in the UK. Questionable assumptions about causation were built into the concept. Social exclusion was about behaviour rather than a lack of money, the socially excluded struggled with multiple problems but the government programs that addressed these linked problems were disjointed and inefficient. Social exclusion was preventable and this could be done cost effectively because socially excluded households were geographically concentrated.
The bureaucratic response
The trouble with coherence began when politicians hand their new concept over to academics and bureaucrats. Reflecting on experience in the European Union, Else Øyen writes about the way researchers picked up the concept and were soon "running all over the place arranging seminars and conferences to find a researchable content in an umbrella concept for which there is limited theoretical underpinning."
Academics have different constraints to politicians so they question the assumptions politicians have built into the idea of social exclusion. They graft their own theories about disadvantage onto the concept and competing definitions proliferate (for example, an academic paper written for the Social Exclusion Unit in the UK lists 12 definitions). Researchers introduce ideas such as discrimination that locate the cause of the problem in politically awkward places.
Faced with demands to ‘join up’ services and improve efficiency, bureaucrats respond by commissioning research papers and forming committees. Departments re-badge existing and proposed programs as social exclusion initiatives and compete for funding. Pilot programs spring up in areas of concentrated disadvantage and evaluations are commissioned.
Efforts to create a single measure social exclusion or inclusion quickly become bogged down in definitional disputes. So researchers and bureaucrats respond by treating social exclusion as an umbrella term. Problems such as homelessness, truancy, drug and alcohol abuse and entrenched joblessness are all gathered together under the heading of social exclusion.
All that remains is a vague idea that these problems are somehow linked and that the best way to solve them is through a ‘joined up’ or ‘whole of government’ approach. But from joining up government is difficult when the entire apparatus of funding, accountability and performance management is designed to break responsibility down into discrete units. Each departmental program managers is responsible for delivering against a manageable number of key performance indicators. Each department is responsible for a clearly defined set of outcomes. And each government minister is responsible for making decisions in their own portfolio.
Departmental program managers are rewarded for the delivering the outcomes they are responsible for and ignoring everything else. Managers in the department of employment are not rewarded for reducing homelessness, substance abuse or domestic violence. They are rewarded for getting their clients off welfare and into work.
When the Howard government decided to take a whole of government approach to Indigenous disadvantage in 8 trial sites across Australia, the result ended up being branded "a complete debacle". According to a 2007 report by Stuart Rintoul in the Australian, an audit office investigation found that departmental culture, funding arrangements and program guidelines prevented managers on the ground from working together in an effective way.
The difficulty of getting government departments to work in a joined up way means that social inclusion policy risks ending up as a number of government departments pursuing separate problems while a central social inclusion unit or task force coordinates meetings by departmental managers, writes briefings, consults and commissions research.
Did it work?
When US President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty he declared: "We want to offer the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity and not doles." Instead of promising to redistribute income he promised to help poor Americans climb towards a better life through education, training and neighbourhood improvement. He pledged to root out pockets of poverty in both urban slums rural backwaters. And he assured voters that everything the government spent on the fight against poverty would "result in savings to the country and especially to the local taxpayers in the cost of crime, welfare, of health, and of police protection."
But to his conservative opponents, the war on poverty will always be identified with an explosion in welfare spending, with inefficiency, waste and a failure to come to grips with the causes of chronic welfare dependency.
New Labour’s struggle against social exclusion ended the same way. A 2008 policy paper by the Conservative Party declared that "Millions are trapped on benefits, reliant not on their own skills and endeavours to raise their standard of living but on state handouts." The Conservatives claimed that Labour relied too heavily on handouts, fostered an inefficient top-down bureaucracy and failed to come to grips with the causes of chronic welfare dependency.
But despite the attacks, New Labour’s efforts to lift up the poor (like Lyndon Johnson’s) have actually been reasonably successful. The only problem is, they succeeded by redistributing income rather than moving jobless people into work. As US academic Lane Kenworthy writes:
One of the most successful recent antipoverty efforts in affluent countries was that of the New Labour governments in the United Kingdom from the late 1990s through the late 2000s. Though Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments focused much of their rhetoric and policy reform on improving employment and economic opportunity, they also increased net government transfers to low earners, single parents, and pensioners. Benefit and tax changes between 1997 and 2005 increased real disposable income for lowest income households by about 20 percent. This increase was one of the largest in any of the rich countries for which reliable data are available
Critics like Blue Labour’s Daniel Sage argue that the problem with New Labour’s redistribution by stealth is that "You can’t win an argument on fairness if you don’t allow the public to debate in the first place." At Open Democracy, British academic Simon Griffiths points out that the stealthy approach becomes vulnerable when the economy goes bad.
The political rhetoric of social exclusion and inclusion ensnares both politicians and bureaucrats in the pretence that the world works the way swing voters in focus groups think it works. It’s an approach that assumes debate is pointless because these voters won’t pay attention to anything that doesn’t directly affect their own families and neighbourhoods.
According to pollster Deborah Mattinson, politicians and voters are trapped in the never-never land of ‘Peter Pan politics’. It’s a "politics where the electorate never grows up. Instead the voter is indulged like a spoilt child by politicians desperately seeking their favour." Politics is something that’s done to voters who demand outcomes that deep down they know are not really achievable.
Perhaps it’s time both politicians expected more from voters and extended the idea of social inclusion to the political as well as the economic sphere.