In the 1990s, European policy wonks starting using the label "social exclusion" as a more sophisticated alternative to "poverty" or "disadvantage." The goal of policy, relatedly, became the promotion of "social inclusion." It never really caught on in the United States, but there are some lessons this side of the pond, too.
The terminological shift to inclusion captured an important move towards a multidimensional approach to inequality. Money matters, of course: but exclusion is not merely a matter of low income, but typically of low skills, poor health, limited opportunities and, all too often, a lack of confidence and aspiration. Social inclusion therefore comes closer in many ways to a focus on social mobility – which, by definition, requires a multidimensional approach.
But there are dangers with the inclusion approach too, as I warn in a chapter of a new Fabian Society volume. Specifically, inclusion strongly orients policy towards bringing people into the "mainstream" of society. Like many communitarian approaches, this can quickly start to feel constricting and illiberal: essentially the message is: Be More Like Us.
A Liberal Approach to Disadvantage: Three Principles
A truly liberal (As in John Stuart Mill, not John Dewey) approach to disadvantage has three key features:
- Put children first. Institutions can fail individuals, and families are no exception. Bluntly, for many children, their parents are the main problem. While we have a duty to help the parents, we also need to ensure that we do not fail the children by placing family autonomy above individual opportunity. So: parenting programs, pre-schools, more SEED-school type boarding school places.
- Respect the Recipients. While frustrated politicians often demand more "respect" from disadvantaged groups, this cuts both ways: they are worthy of respect too. As the philosopher Ronald Dworkin puts it: “A relational, or social, view of equality takes the task of an egalitarian society to be…to create the right kinds of classless relationships between people; avoiding oppression, exploitation, domination, servility, snobbery, and other hierarchical evils.”
Respect of all kinds is built on self-respect. If we continue to stigmatize the poorest, we should not be surprised if social attitudes towards them harden, which will have the effect of pushing them further away.
- Focus on Independence, not Inclusion. The overall measure of success is not the degree to which a disadvantaged individual or family becomes "included" in society; it is the degree to which they have the resources and opportunities – the "capability set," to borrow Amartya Sen’s terms – to chart their own course in life, to be agents over their own lives, rather than living at the mercy of others, or in the grip of addiction.
In a plural society, people will have – should have - very different views of what constitutes a good life. A Manhattan lesbian is unlikely ever to agree with a Mormon farmer in Utah. The goal of public policy then is not to promote a unitary, "inclusive" view of success and flourishing, but to equip people with the spaces and skills to pursue their own.