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Fighting social exclusion in rural areas

[ Summary ]


Chapter 1:
Social exclusion, a multidimensional phenomenon


1.3 From “poverty” to “social exclusion”


The notion of “social exclusion” which is different from that of “poverty” emerged at the end of the 1980s with the appearance of new forms of social distress against a backdrop of European economic growth and improved competitiveness. These new forms of social distress are the result of socio-economic processes which for the hardest hit mean not only long-term unemployment or the impossibility of finding their first job but also a diminished sense of belonging. They are left without social links, points of reference and status.

Exclusion implies deprivation of a kind different from poverty. The excluded are deprived of an opinion and political weight while society becomes more tolerant of inequalities.

Social exclusion is also and above all not having access to basic services, beginning with those which, like housing and food, are necessary for survival and human dignity. Need we be reminded that today in the European Union about 1.1 million citizens (and even 1.8 million at certain times of the year) everyday rely on services for the homeless? In Germany, the United Kingdom and France [13] in particular, their number is considerable.

So what are the determining factors of social exclusion?

The loss of a job (or for young people the inability to find a job) is generally the element that triggers the exclusion process. The reason can be economic redundancy, the end of a contract of specified duration, short-time working, early retirement or any other form of interruption of employment. Of course, losing a job does not automatically set into motion the exclusion process, but prolonged unemployment together with little qualification is enough to activate this process.

However, the loss of a job is not the only element triggering the exclusion process. Other factors, which may accompany the loss of work, play the same role. Certain elements are specific to certain particularly vulnerable age categories. Adolescents in particular can see their lives destroyed. Events often related to poverty or the marginalisation of families, such as failure at school or abandonment by the family, can occur and lead to a series of exclusions. Elderly people are also particularly vulnerable. According to EUROSTAT, in 1995 the proportion of households composed of one person 65 years or older was 3 to 4 times greater in the low-income groups in certain countries like Ireland, Portugal, Denmark, or Greece.

More generally, social exclusion is also the result of a change in the social welfare mechanisms and a shift in today’s dominant values.

In the aftermath of World War II, the virtual eradication of absolute poverty was accompanied in the industrialised European societies by income security and redistribution measures. These were ensured by the Welfare State and presented as the guarantee of the well-being of all citizens. In those days, it also looked like growth and full employment were going to last.

With the crisis in the 1970s and the first major industrial restructurings, the decline in the purchasing power of families affected by unemployment revealed a “new poverty”. Since then, residual poverty is no longer the issue. Unemployment has become a lasting phenomenon, leading to forms of marginalisation that are now called “exclusion”.

Thus, a society where poverty looked set to disappear has been replaced by a society where social exclusion appears as an intrinsic, or even inevitable, phenomenon. What is more, the conditions to access forms of social protection are becoming tougher, and employment incentive measures (increased “employability”, development of the spirit of enterprise, encouragement of company and employee flexibility, funding of equal opportunity policies) [14] are on the rise against a backdrop of chronic unemployment.


[13] Committee of the Regions, The Homeless
and housing question, Draft opinion, Brussels,
23 March 1999, p.9

[14] This approach to the problem is
developed in the Commission report “Modernising and
improving social protection in the European Union”
(COM (97)102) and in the “Guidelines on employment”
approved by the Council (OJ C30, 28 January 1998)

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