Social Exclusion: A Social Worker's View

Social exclusion is an essentially conservative concept. The rhetoric of social exclusion implies that the long-standing tension between middle class social workers and their working class clients should be resolved in favour of the former. It diverts attention away from poverty and is failing to lift those at the bottom of society out of their despair and depression.

When the discourse of 'social exclusion' emerged in the 90's it was hailed as tackling problems both within the individual and the wider society. It replaced the more pejorative term 'underclass' and encouraged a more positive and inclusive approach. It seemed to promote a society that was more cohesive and caring, even though capitalism was taking society in the opposite direction, towards selfish individualism and social segregation.

Social exclusion was always an ambiguous term but the government has always seen the way forward through employment and active citizenship. The Social Exclusion Unit recommended a pro-active, inter-agency approach towards particular problems. A range of government units were set up to improve co-operation between departments and new services such as Sure Start and Connexions were targeted on pre-school children and young people. However, traditional rivalries between departments continued and strategies concerned with early intervention and prevention have been of limited success.

More recently, the thrust of government policy is on changing individual behaviour. The main route out of poverty is through work and the government has invested in a range of services to support this strategy, e.g. financial help through the tax system and expansion of child care provision. In addition, social workers are going into schools to help the fight against social exclusion, and assertive outreach teams are tackling the social exclusion problems of mental health users. At the same time the government has shown a very half-hearted response to the problems of poverty and deprivation at the root of social exclusion. The poorest and most vulnerable continue to live in very impoverished environments. The poor get poorer as the rich get richer.

Social work has long recognised its mediating role and therefore the social exclusion discourse, which embraces this role, was initially accepted by social workers. However, what is missing is any recognition of the contradictions at the heart of social work, such as how psychological theories concerned with attempting to control, cure or correct the 'socially excluded' can be reconciled with anti-oppressive practice. There is often an unwarranted assumption that middle class values are the answer.

The theory of social exclusion can be interpreted in a variety of ways and even allows people to see things in it that are not there. They can read into it their own feelings about the relationship between the individual and society, about conformity and non-conformity, and about belonging or being an outsider. It offers an understanding of the social work role that avoids any serious discussion of the political issues that underpin practice. It allows social workers to reach their own private view of the social work role.

Since Labour came to power in 1997 a vast industry has emerged around social exclusion. Academics and researchers have produced numerous measures of social exclusion and elaborate neighbourhood profiles. These may assist politicians and policy-makers but social workers learn nothing new from them. Social workers know from their day-to-day experience that poverty is at the core of social exclusion. They work closely with people living in run-down council estates and high crime areas who are locked in a cycle of deprivation and helplessness. They expect the social exclusion industry to come up with strategies for tackling poverty but all they get is abstract philosophising. Many academics seem only interested in social exclusion so that they can turn it into a product they can sell and they gloss over the difficult problem of tackling poverty and inequality.

Social workers provide services for those in most need. On top of this they are now expected to help people overcome social exclusion. They must encourage their clients who are unemployed to get jobs, including those with caring responsibilities. They must help clients overcome their deprivation, even though public services are under-resourced and inadequate. They must also change the behaviour of the deviant and nuisance poor. Clearly, social workers are being given an impossible job.

New Labour has obviously been very successful in developing a theory which has been absorbed into the mainstream. With the support of various powerful groups in society it has created the notion that the socially excluded are outside the norms and conventions of society and are somehow deviant and problematic. Therefore, it is the job of the social worker to bring these people in line.

Social workers try to reach out to those most difficult to reach, who have often been failed by other agencies. However, they are increasingly expected to take an interest in aspects of family life that were previously seen as private and outside the concern of the state. This raises fiercely debated ethical issues about personal freedom and state intervention.

David Miliband said in an article on social exclusion in the Guardian (29/11/2005) that where people's lives improved they were not "going from being socially excluded to being middle class overnight". Apparently, he promotes flawed middle class values above sound working class values based on family and community. By shifting the focus from tackling poverty to changing attitudes the minister reflects this government's underlying contempt for the respectable poor.

Hilary Searing


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