The integration of Europe, the creation of a single bloc that works to promote the freedoms and quality of life of all Europeans, has been a stunning achievement of the last century. But despite a common approach to creating a better Europe, social exclusion is still an enormous, if not growing, problem. And in order to realize the Europe that we are striving for, it is necessary to increase our efforts against social exclusion. Doing so is in everyone’s best interest, even if we are not victims of social exclusion, as it will allow us to create the free, fair and prosperous societies we all want to live in.
What is social exclusion?
Social exclusion describes a situation where not everyone has equal access to the opportunities and services that allow them to lead a decent, happy life. This includes not being able to give input and have their voice heard on the rules of the society in which they live. The opportunities and services that are inaccessible are things like infrastructure – even basic things like electricity and running water – and services like public education, healthcare or the social welfare system.
You can think of it like a power grid that connects various parts of society to each other, providing a link for one part of society to enjoy the same benefits as other segments of society. Social exclusion refers to the blacked-out areas – communities that are not connected to the grid and cannot enjoy the same benefits and opportunities as everyone else. These communities are often referred to as ‘marginalized’, and ‘social marginalization’ is another term used to describe social exclusion.
In theory, every person has certain rights that should prevent these blackouts. Human rights provide everyone with the same right to have a voice, be treated equally under the law, and participate in public debate about the society they live in. And social rights, like healthcare and education, are meant to ensure that everyone has a chance to access the same basic opportunities and services that are available to everyone else. But when these rights are not protected, or when governments actively work to deny these rights, the blackouts happen.
What types of social exclusion exist?
Social exclusion can happen in many ways and on different levels. Often, however, there is a link that connects being socially excluded in one area of life to being excluded in another. For example, social exclusion exists when certain groups are denied the same access to education as the rest of society. Think of Roma people in many countries. Their inability to access education in turn prevents them from getting the necessary qualifications for a good job. And it doesn’t stop there – they are thus unable to find a good home or even be able to afford to raise a family. So their exclusion from the education system has a knock-on effect that excludes them from other key parts of society. The knock-on effect and inability to overcome it also mean that social exclusion is often spread from generation to generation, ensuring that certain groups are perpetually off the grid and excluded.
People can be excluded from society for a number of reasons. Often it is because they belong to a certain ethnic or minority group that faces discrimination in their society. But it can also happen because of how someone identifies. Members of the LGBTQI community have long faced discrimination that has affected their ability to get a job or even access certain places, like bars and restaurants, that are accessible to others. These instances of social exclusion are mostly a consequence of direct discrimination.
But indirect discrimination also causes social exclusion. People with disabilities are frequently excluded from society through basic infrastructure failings like buildings without elevators or ramps. This may seem like a small thing to some, but it can affect those with disabilities from participating in public life, sharing their opinions on important issues, or even voting and having a say in the future of their society.
And regulations that might seem fair on their face can also indirectly cause discrimination. Part-time workers are paid less than full-time workers, and often derive fewer benefits, like health and welfare, from their jobs. While this might seem fair, consider that women are far more likely than men to hold part-time jobs. Or that gig economy workers are overwhelmingly ethnic minorities. So labor regulations that don’t directly discriminate against certain groups nevertheless cause or exacerbate discrimination and social exclusion.
Poverty and social exclusion: do they go hand in hand?
It is often the case that people who are socially excluded also live in poverty. If you can’t afford basic things like food, clothing or a place to live, or be able to move about on public transport when you need to or access healthcare when you’re ill or injured, then you’re probably excluded from taking part in many things in society. And it’s true that ethnic minorities are, on average, in a worse economic situation than the majority. Ethnic minorities have more difficulty accessing gainful employment, good schools, a good standard of housing or healthcare facilities that are well supplied and staffed. So discrimination, both direct and indirect, causes poverty for ethnic minorities more frequently than for other groups.
But it’s possible to be income poor but not live in social exclusion. Societies with a redistributive taxation system often provide better and more easily accessible public services. Providing things like free access to public transportation, healthcare or social venues can allow people who live in economic poverty to avoid social exclusion. Some countries are even experimenting with ideas like a universal basic income, which could also help bring people out of economic poverty and forms of social exclusion that exists because of their poverty.
How does social exclusion affect people’s lives? How big is its impact?
Clearly, social exclusion can have a big impact on someone’s life. We’ve looked at a number of ways this is true. And the fact that exclusion from one area of life can be related to exclusion from another area of life underscores how dramatically social exclusion can affect a person’s life. If you cannot send your kids to a good school, or any school at all, they may be unable to get a good job. If you cannot access good healthcare, you may become very sick and have to quit whatever job you do have, plunging you into economic poverty.
In such cases, it becomes even harder for you to change the status quo. When you are socially excluded, you have more difficulty having your voice heard, or your opinion about society and the laws you live under may be less important to those in power. It can even make it harder for you to vote, the most basic way anyone can influence the future path of their society. This may be because social exclusion makes it more difficult to vote – getting to a polling station can be too time consuming or too costly – or because of direct discrimination, such as certain ethnic groups being omitted from voter rolls or undercounted in the census.
Examples of social exclusion from everyday life
We’ve looked at a few examples of social exclusion, but it is important to be aware of just how ‘everyday’ it is. A good example is when buildings that only have stairs. Or when bar and restaurant owners refuse to serve people from the LGBTQI community. Social exclusion is an everyday occurrence in education as well. Certain schools may exclude people from certain ethnic or religious groups. Or refuse to educate someone with a disability. Social exclusion also occurs in policing. When the police concentrate their efforts on certain communities, these communities face undue suspicion and are more likely to account for crime rates in society, even though there might not actually be more crime in those communities. This makes landlords less likely to rent to people from these communities, for example.
Current situation: how is the world handling social exclusion?
The situation varies dramatically from country to country. Societies with more progressive governments tend to suffer less social exclusion. For example, the taxation system in Scandinavian countries has created enviable welfare systems that help lift communities and individuals who would otherwise face social exclusion. Small efforts, like Berlin allowing homeless people to freely use the public transportation system, also help people avoid social exclusion.
But in too many countries, social exclusion is still a huge problem. And it has been exacerbated by the rise of populist authoritarians. For them, social exclusion is actually part of their toolbox. They exploit social exclusion in order to divide the working classes along racial lines and stoke hatred towards minorities whom they blame for problems like poverty. This allows them to create scapegoats they can blame for their own failings, and it stokes a sense of fear that can be a useful driver during elections.
How do we fight social exclusion?
In order to fight social exclusion, we need to build societies that are more inclusive. Policies and regulations can help with this. Creating a basic minimum wage that lifts people out of economic poverty will have a ripple effect that can pull them out of social exclusion in other areas. Taxation systems that provide for strong social welfare systems can allow socially excluded groups to access the basic services that others enjoy. And they can help ensure that people who suffer significant hardship, like an illness or injury, have the safety net needed to avoid slipping into social exclusion.
It is also important to make sure governments care about socially excluded groups. Tightening lobbying rules, closing loopholes that allow corruption, and supporting civil society groups that help people take part in everyday life and public debate are all things that will help end social exclusion. After all, we all want to live in a society that gives us the same chance as anyone else to have our voice heard and live happily.