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                Poor Concepts
                ÂSocial ExclusionÊ, Poverty and
                the Politics of Guilt
                                                                                                         Peter Saunders and
                                                                                                           Kayoko Tsumori

                    The widespread use of the concept of Âsocial exclusionÊ to refer to poverty and
                    deprivation in Australia is obscuring our understanding of these problems.

        It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted               poverty, not how to measure it.2 But the numbers do
        once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical              matter because they influence the sorts of policy ideas
        thought should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as       that get proposed and pursued. For example, the
        thought is dependent on words . . . . This was done partly        Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) believes
        by invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating
                                                                          that more than one-fifth of the Australian population
        undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained
        of unorthodox meanings. . . . Newspeak was designed not
                                                                          is poor, and that a substantial increase in the value of
        to extend but to diminish the range of thought.                   welfare benefits is therefore required to tackle the
                         —George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four             problem.3 We have suggested that no more than one in
                              (London: Penguin, 1954), 257-8.             20 people are in long-term poverty, and that most of
                                                                          these are ‘poor’ because they have failed to find or hold
                                                                          down a full-time job. If we are right, it makes more
                                                                          sense to tackle poverty by getting people off welfare

              new concept, ‘social exclusion’, is displacing an           and into jobs than to increase welfare benefits by raising
              older and more familiar one—the idea of                     taxes on those who are currently working.4
              ‘poverty’. The term ‘social exclusion’ can mean                 Getting the statistics right is therefore an important
     almost anything and can be applied to almost anybody,                first step in the search for policy solutions. But just as
     and unlike the word ‘poverty’, it always implies                     important as getting the numbers straightened out is
     causation. Identify somebody as ‘socially excluded’ and              getting our concepts clarified—we must be clear what
     you fix in advance the presumption that they are not                 it is that we are talking about. In recent years, however,
     to be held responsible for their condition. Exclusion is             the welfare debate has become increasingly bogged
     something that happens to people—it signifies                        down in a language that confuses more than it clarifies.
     victimhood in a way that mere ‘poverty’ does not—
     and this means it is somebody else’s fault. This is a                The politics of language
     language which apportions ‘blame’ and ‘guilt’ to justify             Recent changes in the vocabulary of poverty and welfare
     redistributing people’s money.                                       involve more than mere ‘political correctness’.5 They
                                                                          have been introduced in an attempt to change the way
     Problematic numbers, problematic words                               we think about public policy problems and solutions.
     In earlier papers we have looked at the measurement of
     poverty—how many Australians are ‘poor’ and how rates                Peter Saunders is the Director of Social Research
     of poverty have been changing. 1 Some critics have                   Programmes and Kayoko Tsumori is Policy Analyst at The
     suggested that our concern with numbers was                          Centre for Independent Studies. The extensive endnotes that
     inappropriate, for what really matters is how to tackle              go with this article may be accessed at www.cis.org.au

32                                                           Policy vol. 18, no. 2
                                                                                                           P OOR C ONCEPTS

    Sociolinguists believe that the words we use                But this recognition that deprivation is about more
influence the way we think about the world around us.       than money is not new—the ‘culture of poverty’
Our concepts literally tell us what we are looking at.      theories of the 1960s emphasised that poverty has
Words are much more than labels—they tell us what           cultural and behavioural as well as financial
things are like and how to respond to them.                 dimensions, 10 and even the English Poor Law
    This was what Orwell was driving at when he             commissioners were well aware of this way back in the
invented Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, for certain      1830s. 11 We have also known for a long time that
kinds of concepts generate a particular kind of             problems associated with deprivation are inter-
understanding of the world. If we can encourage other       dependent and mutually reinforcing, that pathologies
people to apply old concepts to situations where they       tend to be cumulative, and that poverty can be
never applied before (‘poverty’ to refer to income          transmitted down the generations (that it often ‘runs
inequality, for example), or to use new concepts that       in families’). The attractiveness of the concept of ‘social
we ourselves have invented (such as ‘social exclusion’),    exclusion’ cannot therefore be explained by its emphasis
then we stand a good chance of influencing other people     on the multi-dimensionality and dynamism of
to think about things in the way that                                          deprivation, for there is nothing new
we think about them. Words do not                                              in this.12
just describe reality; they define it.          Words do not just                  What is new and distinctive about
Those who control the vocabulary                                               this concept (and the reason why it
control the agenda.
                                                  describe reality;            has become so popular) is its
                                                   they define it.             assumption that we already know what
The evolution of ‘social exclusion’            Those who control               causes these problems. People who are
The concept of social exclusion                                                ‘socially excluded’ do not simply suffer
originated in France in the 1970s where            the vocabulary              multiple deprivation; they do so
it referred to those who were not                    control the               because this is somebody else’s fault than
covered by the country’s system of                     agenda.                 their own. This follows from the core
employment-based social insurance                                              idea that people are being ‘shut out’
protection. 7 Over time, its scope                                             of something. To be excluded is to be
expanded to encompass aged and                                                 the victim of somebody else’s exercise
disabled people, substance abusers, abused children,        of power—the word ‘exclusion’ entails agency on the
unemployed workers, lone parents, immigrants, ethnic        part of one party and victimhood on the part of another.
minorities and even the suicidal.8 From very early on,          This usage may have made a certain amount of sense
this was a ragbag concept.                                  in France where people who had not established
    Despite (or perhaps because of ) its imprecision, the   eligibility for social insurance payments were excluded
term swiftly spread throughout Europe, and today, this      by the government from receiving them. But it makes
new terminology is widespread among Western social          no literal sense in an Australian context where access to
policy professionals and academics who claim that it        welfare support requires no prior financial contributions
has important intellectual advantages over the older        to establish eligibility. In Australia, if you have a low
terminology of poverty.                                     income, you can claim support irrespective of your
    The particular strength of this concept is said to lie  employment history. Nobody is excluding anybody.
in its recognition that social deprivation is ‘multi-           Why, then, is the policy community in Australia so
dimensional’ (that is, it involves more than simply a       committed to using a term which seems so
lack of material resources) and ‘dynamic’ (that is, it is   inappropriate to our means-tested, non-contributory
reproduced over time). The European Commission, for         welfare system? The answer lies in the political agenda
example, tells us that, ‘Exclusion goes beyond poverty.     that is driving this use of language.13
It is the accumulation and combination of several types
of deprivation: lack of education, deteriorating health     Exclusion and social participation
conditions, homelessness, loss of family support, non-      If they are not being excluded from access to the
participation in the regular life of society, and lack of   government welfare system, what is it that people are
job opportunities. Each type of deprivation increases       being excluded from? The answer given by those who
the other types.’                                           use this term is ‘participation in society’. In this new

                                                       Winter 2002                                                          33

     discourse, ‘social exclusion’ and ‘social participation’       interaction with family and friends, and recreational
     constitute a binary opposition. If you are ‘socially           activities. He then selected 12 of these indicators (things
     excluded’, it means you cannot ‘participate’ effectively       like not having had a week’s holiday away from home
     in society—the two concepts are always linked:                 in the last year, not having eaten meat at least four
                                                                    times in the last week, and not having had a cooked
     • ‘[P]eople who are long term recipients of benefits           breakfast most mornings) as the basis for a ‘deprivation
         tend to be excluded from participation in the economic     index’. Townsend found that people’s scores on his 12-
         life of the community [and] also tend to become            point deprivation index increased as incomes fell, and
         isolated from social institutions’ (Mission Australia,     he suggested (not altogether convincingly) that an
         emphasis added).                                           income threshold could be identified below which
     • ‘Social exclusion refers to a situation in which             participation fell markedly. This threshold defined his
         individuals or communities are subject to multiple         poverty line, which turned out to be some 40% higher
         forms of disadvantage such that they cease to be full      than the official welfare benefits level.
         citizens and are unable to participate in the economic,        In Britain and Australia, the idea of ‘social exclusion’,
         social, cultural and political dimensions of society’      imported from France in the 1980s, has been tacked
         (The Smith Family, emphasis                                                  onto Townsend’s legacy. People are
         added).                                                                      therefore considered ‘socially
     • ‘[There is] a damaging fault line                                              excluded’ if they are unable to
                                                             People are
         across our community, with those                                             participate in a style of life deemed
         on the wrong side excluded not only                ‘excluded’ if             ‘normal’ in their society, and
         from the ‘good things of life’, but              they are unable             researchers have devoted enormous
         often from the very life of the                                              energy to identifying what this
         community itself. It forms a barrier
                                                        to participate in a           ‘normal’ lifestyle might consist of.
         that severely reduces their capacity to       style of life deemed               In Britain, three different attempts
         participate socially and economically’          ‘normal’ in their            to measure social exclusion appeared
         (ACOSS, emphasis added).                                                     within just two years and between
     • ‘Economic and social participation can                  society.               them they identified around 100
         reduce the risk of exclusion for                                             indicators of a ‘normal’ life. These
         individuals . . . Widespread                                                 included things like accidental death
         economic and social participation contributes to           rates, divorce and suicide rates, depression and anxiety,
         social cohesion’ (McClure Report on welfare reform,        and even cigarette smoking.16
         emphasis added). 14                                            In Australia, meanwhile, the Social Policy Research
                                                                    Centre (SPRC) at the University of New South Wales
     ‘Social exclusion’, then, entails an inability to              has compiled lists of thousands of items which most
     participate across a wide range of social activities. But      people buy and has then worked out the income that
     this just raises further questions. What kinds of activities   different kinds of households need if they are to
     are people prevented from participating in, who are            purchase everything on the list.17 If most families, for
     these people, and what or who is stopping them from            instance, have a VCR, make an annual visit to an animal
     joining in?                                                    or marine park, own walking boots, goggles and a swim
                                                                    hat, have a Christmas holiday away from home, own a
     Exclusion from what?                                           car, enjoy a haircut every eight weeks, purchase antacid
     In his 1979 book, Poverty in the United Kingdom, the           tablets and own a pet equivalent to a neutered male
     British socialist Peter Townsend claimed that 26% of           cat, then all these items go on the list. If you do not
     the UK population was ‘deprived of the conditions of           have enough income to buy everything on the list, then
     life which ordinarily define membership of a society’.15       you lack the capacity to participate at an adequate level
     To get this remarkable finding, he first asked a sample        in the society.18
     of the British population about 60 different aspects of            This idea that exclusion entails an inability to do
     their lives including their diet, clothing, ownership of       what is ‘normal’ lends itself to all sorts of applications.
     consumer durables, housing amenities, working                  Michael Bittman, for example, has used the SPRC’s
     conditions, health and education, environment,                 data to suggest that people may be ‘excluded’ by

34                                                      Policy vol. 18, no. 2
                                                                                                         P OOR C ONCEPTS

shortage of time as well as shortage of money. People       process. Social exclusion is an act, something that one
who are too busy to spend time on ‘normal’ activities       social grouping does to another.’20 So who are the
like working in the garden are ‘socially excluded’, even    victims and who are the perpetrators?
if they enjoy an adequate income. This extension of the         It turns out that the victims can be almost anybody.
concept brings a whole new set of people into the           There are plausibility limits to the numbers of people
category of the ‘socially excluded’ (it encompasses most    who can be defined as ‘poor’, but switching to the
parents with young children, for example), and this         concept of social exclusion enables you to escape even
opens the way for Bittman to call for more government       these constraints. One review of the literature finds that
spending on parental leave and increased government         groups identified as ‘socially excluded’ have included
regulation of working hours in order to combat              the long-term unemployed, those in precarious jobs,
widespread exclusion.19                                     the low-paid, the poor, school drop-outs, the mentally
    As this example makes clear, ‘social exclusion’ is a    and physically disabled, addicts of various descriptions,
highly elastic concept which has proved even more           delinquents and criminals, single parents, abused
flexible and imprecise than the slippery concept of         children, those who grew up in problem households,
‘poverty’ ever did. Indeed, it now routinely gets used      young people without work experience or qualifications,
so loosely that it has effectively lost any                                   women, foreigners and immigrants,
real meaning. We have already                                                 ethnic and religious minorities, people
encountered examples of this:                                                 on social assistance, people eligible
                                                ‘Social exclusion’            for social assistance but not
• The Smith Family claims that                   occurs at the top            receiving it, residents of disreputable
    ‘excluded’ people are ‘unable to                                          neighbourhoods, the downwardly
    participate in the economic, social,           as well as the             mobile and people who are isolated
    cultural and political dimensions of        bottom of society             from friends or family.
    society’, but if this really were the                                         The point about a list like this is
                                              as privileged groups
    case, it would mean that a large                                          not simply that it is conceptually
    chunk of the Australian population            withdraw from               chaotic; it is that it can cover most of
    never goes to the shops, never                  participation             the population. Reviewing this list,
    speaks to anybody, never watches                                          David Gordon concludes that the only
    television and never votes.
                                                  in mass society.            person in the UK who could not be
• Similarly, ACOSS suggests that                                              defined as ‘socially excluded’ is Prince
    people are shut out of ‘the very life                                     Philip (the Queen qualifies on two
    of the community itself ’, which could only literally   counts, for she is old and she is female, and Princess
    be true if several million people had been locked       Diana would have been eligible several times over as a
    away beyond the reach of family, friends and            female lone parent with mental health problems). In
    neighbours.                                             fact, on some definitions, even Prince Philip gets to be
                                                            socially excluded too.21 Anthony Giddens insists that
Clearly, these organisations (and many others like them)    ‘social exclusion’ occurs at the top as well as the bottom
do not actually mean what they are saying—the emotive       of society as privileged groups withdraw from
language of ‘exclusion’ is simply being used without        participation in mass society.22 This idea has been picked
much thought. Such statements are, however, rarely          up in Australia by Peter Saunders of the SPRC: ‘At the
challenged. We have all become so habituated to the         top end, people choose to exclude themselves from the
language that we accept claims even when they defy          broader community by only using private schools,
commonsense.                                                private hospitals, private estates and even private
Who is excluding whom?                                          With all these victims, who are the perpetrators? As
Michael Bittman is one of the few users of the concept      we noted earlier, the concept of ‘social exclusion’ rules
of ‘social exclusion’ to make explicit what is usually left out the possibility that some people might bring their
implicit—that the term contains an assumption about         fates upon themselves. What Lucy Sullivan has called
causation, power and responsibility. As he puts it: ‘The    ‘behavioural poverty’24 is defined out of existence at
concept of social exclusion emphasises agency and           the outset, for exclusion is something that happens to

                                                      Winter 2002                                                        35

     you, not something you make happen. Even if you make          government, and the government itself has been
     a conscious decision to truant from school, quit your         colluding with them by ‘deliberately avoiding’ actions
     job, take heroin, have a baby without a partner to help       against them.29 The guilty parties are therefore plain
     raise it, burgle somebody’s house or set out on any of        to see.
     the other paths that qualify you as ‘socially excluded’,          In the light of all this unfairness, aggression and
     it is always going to be somebody else’s fault, for the       dishonesty on the part of higher rate taxpayers and the
     language of ‘social exclusion’ is expressed in the passive    government, ACOSS thinks the least we can do is to
     voice. 25 To identify somebody as ‘poor’ is to leave open     ‘change the distributional direction of tax and spending
     the question of responsibility and fault; to identify them    policy’—something we should try to achieve
     as ‘excluded’ is to pre-empt it.                              ‘cooperatively and collaboratively’.30
         So who is to blame for excluding people? The                  In earlier work we pointed to the ‘politics of envy’
     familiar culprits are in the frame—the government, the        that seem to be driving so much of the welfare policy
     rich and ‘society’ in general. Social                                           debate in Australia.31 The politics of
     exclusion is something that is caused                                           envy consist of the desire to reduce the
     by ‘society’, that must be rectified by                                         prosperity of the ‘rich’ as much as to
     government, and that will be paid for
                                                         The finger of               improve the wellbeing of the poor,32
     by increased taxation on higher                    blame is being               and these ACOSS reports are a good
     income earners.                                   pointed at higher             example of it. There is an anger and
                                                                                     resentment here about the fact that
     Fixing the blame                                  earners, who are              some better-off people may be finding
     In its recent Budget Statements,                shirking their social           ways of hanging on to their own money
     ACOSS spells out its programme for               obligations, and at            (even though on our calculations,
     combating ‘social exclusion’. Income                                            federal government revenues in general,
     redistribution is the means (‘closing           government, which               and income tax revenues in particular,
     these inequality gaps must be our top            is letting them get            do not appear to have dropped as a
     priority as a nation’); political power                                         proportion of GDP).33
     is the mechanism (‘national
                                                          away with it.                  But there is something else as well.
     governments . . . retain a significant                                          There is envy, but there is also guilt,
     capacity to affect inequality’); and the                                        for the finger of blame is being pointed
     earned incomes of the middle classes are the targets          at higher earners, who are shirking their social
     (‘this responsibility is exercised primarily through fiscal   obligations, and at government, which is letting them
     policy’).                                                     get away with it. An ‘inclusive’ society requires not only
         ACOSS wants to tackle social exclusion by diverting       that those at the bottom take more, but that those at
     an extra $6 billion to ‘excluded’ groups (among other         the top withhold less. Higher earners have more than
     things, this would pay for a big hike in the value of         their share already, and they are expected to extirpate
     allowances to bring them up to the level of pension           their guilt by giving up their ‘unfair’ shares to other
     payments). This is to be funded by tax increases on           people. An unwillingness to do so is a sign of their
     higher earners (a group which ACOSS appears to define         unwillingness to ‘participate’—and as we have already
     as anyone in the top 20% of taxpayers with an income          seen, everybody from the top to the bottom of the
     above $50,000 a year).27 This raid on people’s earned         society is required to ‘participate’ in order to overcome
     incomes is justified in the name of ‘fairness’, for not       social exclusion.
     only are ‘large numbers . . . locked out’ from the                In the new politics of social inclusion, therefore,
     advantages that ‘some of us are able to share’ by virtue      everybody is expected to put in what others expect of
     of the money we earn, but higher income earners are           them and to take out what they think they need. Guilt
     enjoying ‘unfair tax breaks’ and ‘unfair tax deductions’      is the motive for the donors, envy the motive of the
     while those less fortunate are being left to suffer.          recipients.34
     Heartless plutocrats on $50,000 per annum have been
     using ‘aggressive and sophisticated income tax avoidance      Is anybody excluded?
     schemes’ to get around their ‘obligation’ to surrender        The extraordinary thing about all this is that when
     nearly half of every extra dollar they earn to the            social scientists have tried to test some of the core

36                                                     Policy vol. 18, no. 2
                                                                                                          P OOR C ONCEPTS

assumptions on which the idea of social exclusion is          Conclusion: The power of language
based, they have found no evidence to support them.           Language is not neutral. The concepts that we use
It proves impossible to identify any threshold which          enable us to construct and sustain some interpretations
separates those who ‘participate’ from those who are          of reality while closing others off. Intellectual
‘excluded’, and the claim that there is a deprived            gatekeepers in strategic institutions like universities,
stratum of people who cannot participate effectively in       the media and government departments decide to use
social life turns out to be empirically untrue. Social        one kind of terminology while rejecting another, and
exclusion is an empty concept. It refers to a problem         this structures debates and demarcates policy agendas.
that does not exist.                                          Sooner or later, the rest of us follow suit, and before
    The most significant empirical investigation of ‘social   long, the new terminology takes on an intellectual life
exclusion’ in Australia was carried out by a former           of its own. We start to use it unthinkingly and we no
President of ACOSS, Peter Travers, together with Sue          longer pause to assess whether what we are saying is
Richardson, almost ten years ago.35 Like Townsend             really true—or even if it makes sense. Our concepts
before them, they developed a 12-item index of ‘social        assume a power over our minds, influencing and shaping
participation’, but unlike Townsend, they found that          the way we understand reality, and influencing the
people’s scores on this index correlated only very weakly     policies we develop to change it, and we become
with their incomes. Indicators like                                             unaware that this is even happening.
playing or watching sport, going to a                                               To understand how this happens
pub or club, visiting friends and being                                         we can draw on the science of
able to call on support when it is                    The claim                 memetics,38 which applies Darwinian
needed showed virtually no association             that there is a              insights to an explanation of how ideas,
at all with income, and there was no                                            beliefs and other units of human
evidence that those on the lowest               deprived stratum                culture (collectively known as
incomes were in any sense ‘shut out’              of people who                 ‘memes’) evolve. Memetics sees human
of the normal life of the community.                                            brains as the ‘hosts’ through which
                                                cannot participate
Nor could the authors detect any                                                memes ‘replicate’. Like viruses, memes
threshold income that distinguished            effectively in social            jump from brain to brain through a
those who can participate effectively            life turns out to              process of imitation, replicating and
in their society from those who cannot.                                         sometimes ‘mutating’ as they get
They concluded:
                                                  be empirically                expressed over and over through
                                                         untrue.                verbal, written and electronic
    The relationships we have                                                   communication. The evolution and
    examined between material well-                                             spread of the idea of ‘social exclusion’
    being and social participation all                                          is an example of this process.39
    suggest that, for Australia, it would be too                  We have suggested that thinking about deprivation
    strong a statement to say that low levels of              as social exclusion misleads us about the nature of the
    material resources exclude the poor from                  problems we face as well as their causes. The language
    participation in normal social activities . . .           of exclusion leads us to see problems that are not there,
    We could not detect a threshold of income                 to lay blame where it does not belong, and to advocate
    below which social activities fell away so                solutions which are more likely to undermine self-
    markedly that one could speak of ‘exclusion’.             reliance than to encourage it. The results are likely to
                                                              be policies which are at best ineffective and at worst
This unequivocal finding was published in 1993, and           disastrous.
similar findings have subsequently been reported for              The main cause of poverty today is lack of
the UK too. 37 Despite this, researchers and pundits          employment, and the principal solution to poverty lies
continue to use the term ‘social exclusion’ as if this        in getting more welfare claimants into work. The
research had never been done. This is a concept which         language of social exclusion obscures these simple truths.
has become so deeply embedded in social policy                After 50 years or more of the welfare state it is time to
discourse that it seems to be immune to empirical             recognise that increasing state welfare spending does
disconfirmation.                                              not abolish poverty, it reproduces it.

                                                       Winter 2002                                                         37

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