While social exclusion is unquestionably closely associated with poverty, is it inextricably linked? Can a community marked by significant inequalities of power and status still be socially integrated? This paper from the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion discusses the relationships between social exclusion, justice and solidarity, with a particular focus on class systems within the USA and Britain. Despite varying income distribution, government policies targeting inequality and favouring social solidarity can promote an integrated society.
Social isolation is the phenomenon of non-participation (of an individual or group) in a society’s mainstream institutions. Social exclusion concerns that subset of cases in which social isolation occurs for reasons that are beyond the control of those subject to it.
Beyond a certain point, lack of money makes it impossible for everyone to mix on reasonably equal terms. A society combining a market economy and liberal democratic institutions is liable to have two thresholds of social exclusion. One (lower threshold) divides those who habitually participate in the mainstream institutions from those outside them, and one (upper threshold) separates those in the middle from those who actively detach themselves from mainstream institutions. Both majorities and minorities can experience exclusion, epitomised in the ghetto (excluded), and the gated community (exclusive).
Social solidarity is the fellow-feeling extending beyond people with whom one is in personal contact; at the bare minimum, an acknowledgement that strangers are human beings with basic needs and rights. Social justice posits an equality of access. How does social exclusion affect these societal elements?
- Unequal occupational opportunities: For example, socially isolated housing can negatively impact on its inhabitants’ ability to hear about job opportunities and become engaged in the job network. Poor employment depresses educational motivation in the next generation, hampering job prospects and creating a self-reinforcing negative trend.
- Unequal educational opportunities: The social homogenisation of schools is greatly increased by wealthy parents removing their children from the state system. A critical mass of children with middle class attitudes and aspirations creates a resource for the rest.
- A denial of equal opportunity in relation to politics: Full political participation requires the realised ability to engage in political parties and public policy-related organisations, lobbying, and councillor consultation. Genuine opportunity to do so requires some material preconditions.
Furthermore, the erosion of social solidarity reduces the likelihood of justice being realised through politics. The lack of empathy between the majority and socially isolated minorities allows minorities to be demonised. The balance of political power within a democracy rests with the median voters; the weaker the bonds of social solidarity, the less inclusive the median voter’s concerns.
A government professing concern about social exclusion must also address inequality through public policy. In a society in which the bulk of goods and services are allocated through the market, and in which even those provided publicly can also be bought privately, there will be a close connection between inequality and social exclusion. Public policy can make a difference to the impact that any given degree of inequality has on the extent and severity of social exclusion. For example, policymakers can pursue high quality public service provision and discourage take-up of privately funded services.
- The higher the quality of schools, healthcare and transport, the more it will cost to improve on it within the private sector; therefore a wider income disparity can be tolerated before provoking the upper threshold to opt for private provision.
- Policy can influence pricing to reduce take-up of private alternatives (for example by restricting charitable status for schools, and introducing tighter restrictions on professionals working within both private and public healthcare).
- Political networks tend to grow out of other social networks; greater political participation can only be ensured by greater social inclusion.