Fighting social exclusion in rural areas
[ Summary ]
Social exclusion, a multidimensional phenomenon
1.5 Social exclusion in rural areas:
a challenge for sustainable development
What forms do poverty and social exclusion take in the countryside?
How are they different from the forms that are seen in the city?
a) An old phenomenon with new contours
First of all it is worth recalling that social exclusion in rural
areas is not something new. The changes that have marked the rural
world for more than a century (rural exodus, mechanisation then
industrialisation of agriculture) have in fact caused radical
social transformations, forcing four farmers out of five, and often
more, to leave the land, in sometimes dramatic conditions.
Often when they lost their work, farming families, in addition to
having to cope with a whole series of debts, also lost their
identity and their social links, not to mention an ancestral family
estate. However, in the post World War II boom period in the
industrialised countries, this process of exclusion took on less
tragic forms than the situation created in urban areas by large-
scale redundancies. In this respect, the rural exodus acted as an
outlet for destitute farmers who had no problem finding unskilled
work, particularly in the then fast expanding secondary sector.
But farmers are still having to leave their land today in much
tougher conditions. Unskilled people are feeling the full brunt of
unemployment, and the industrial labour pools set up in rural areas
are being affected by corporate restructuring and relocation. Also,
the possibilities farmers in difficulty had in the past of
supplementing their farm income by working other stable or seasonal
jobs (pluriactivity) are dwindling. What is more, the problem of
overproduction that the agricultural sector has encountered in
crisis proportions, a sector that has considerably downsized its
workforce, has increased and accelerated the impoverishment of
In addition, young people who left the country to find work in the
city are returning after being made redundant or after a prolonged
period of unemployment in the hope of finding security and more
humane living conditions. “Economic refugees” are also flowing out
of cities and looking to the country for a place to live or survive
that rural areas are not always capable of providing. This results
in rural unemployment affecting all the segments of the population.
b) The specifically rural factors of social exclusion
A characteristic of these major trends is the fact that in addition
to the factors of exclusion common to urban and rural areas are
factors specific to the countryside, such as the weight of
tradition and the scattering of communities and activities.
The weight of tradition
The persistence of traditions inherited from ancestral rural
societies and the cultural gap with forms of integration in modern
society are factors of exclusion in rural areas. For example, the
fact that employment was traditionally supplied in the framework of
protected family environments has meant that rural people are often
ill prepared to enter anonymous labour markets. More generally
speaking, rural youth whose “traditional/rural” identity is
permanently confronted with the “modern/urban” identity feel out of
place. Because the rural context often does not facilitate risk-
taking and innovation, young people interested in launching new
economic initiatives have difficulty finding support.
This gap between tradition and modernity particularly affects
women. In the past, their integration in the rural world almost
always depended on activities that were complementary to the farm.
The know-how they had to have for this is today in little demand,
particularly in certain non-industrial production sectors. Today
women are having difficulty finding work, especially in areas where
agri-tourism or other new business activities run by women have not
yet emerged to take up the slack.
The scattering of communities and activities
The low population density that is characteristic of many rural
areas and that the rural exodus has done nothing but amplify poses
all kinds of problems, starting with difficult access to basic
services. Providing children with a primary education, for example,
is becoming more difficult with the closure of village schools,
especially when the families have to ensure the transport. And when
a series of other services disappear (shops, childcare, post
office, petrol station, train station, etc.), the sense of
isolation is greater and the threat of social exclusion increases.
For people already suffering from specific difficulties, this
problem is that much more acute. The lack of mass transport, for
example, is even harder to cope with in the case of disabled or
elderly people. There are fewer social services for the disabled,
for the integration of minorities, or for the homeless, women or
abused children. And job placement agencies capable of organising
training based on job descriptions are increasingly rare.
More generally, the scattering of communities combined with the
gradual disappearance of places of social interaction (pubs and
other places where people can meet) lead to isolation.
Often even building family ties becomes difficult. Thus, because of
the demographic imbalance between the sexes and women’s disinterest
in agriculture, many farmers are finding it difficult to find a
wife. A lot of heirless farmers or small business owners also
suffer from isolation and a lack of prospects.
The low population density also has consequences in terms of
political choices. Because rural areas do not carry much electoral
weight, macro-economic and macro-political decisions are increasing
the trend towards concentration, be that for community services or
occupational training. The current job training and hiring
policies, for example, aim to encourage specialisation. However,
this is not very compatible with the fact that people have to hold
various jobs (pluriactivity) in rural areas to cope with unsteady
employment (very seasonal work in agriculture, tourism or other
Other specific factors
In rural areas, social exclusion also stems from problems of a
legislative, cultural, or political nature. In the case of housing,
for example, laws and regulations encouraging the use of land for
farming often forbid the building of homes. For new families or
people moving from the city this is a handicap.
c) From social exclusion to territorial exclusion
In rural areas, the notion of exclusion can apply not only to
individuals and families but also sometimes to whole areas or
certain “pockets” or certain villages within a given area. These
places have problems gaining access to economic, cultural or other
Thus, some areas are considered “naturally” isolated in the best of
cases, and politicians see them as environments to be protected.
However, any area can support social activities, provided that
local development is the road chosen. This implies the adoption of
measures to keep areas alive, with appropriate policies to provide
services, organise cultural activities and offer training that
keeps pace with the evolving job scene.