In Europe today, 10% of the population lives in households with low intensity jobs, and 8% in severe material deprivation. Addressing their situation, including the causes of poverty and exclusion and the instruments to combat them, is key to ensure that European countries advance towards more inclusive societies. With this in mind, on the 24th March the Maltese government organised a meeting of the chairpersons of the social affairs committees in national parliaments from across Europe. As a speaker at a session on promoting social inclusion at national and European levels, I am now sharing some thoughts from the meeting.
Many of the approaches to poverty incorporate aspects of social exclusion as they are intrinsically related. However, poverty emphasises material and social deprivation, while social exclusion highlights a person or a group’s ability to participate in social, economic, political and cultural life and their relationships with others. Sian Jones, from the European Anti-Poverty Network, argued for tackling the increasing number of the working poor, which meant that work alone was not, a route out of poverty anymore.
While poverty has a profound effect on some (but not all) aspects of social exclusion, there are other important factors that may cause social exclusion. For example, age, disability, ethnicity, gender and employment status. Taking these into account, participants discussed the elements of an integrated social inclusion strategy, which should at least include access to resources and services, economic and social participation, and the improvement of people’s quality of life.
The issue of improving people’s quality of life is of paramount importance. The fall-out from the financial crisis remains significant. The consequences impact families and vulnerable groups across the board. A central point is how much social inequalities risk becoming 'the new normal,’ and the danger that vital investment and innovation could be abandoned. Likewise, we have also highlighted in our recent work the issue of how 'activation' has become the norm, which is very significant for how employment policies and services are configured. Therefore, I suggested the need to develop broader social inclusion strategies like the concept of ‘social sustainability,' meaning that active inclusion policies should aim not only at including people in the labour market but at improving people’s overall quality of life.
Moving forward, the EU has in place several instruments that can help progress towards more socially inclusive societies. These include the European Semester, which is the cycle of policy coordination between the European Commission and Member States, the Europe 2020 Strategy targets, the European Structural Funds, and the future European Pillar of Social Rights. However, there is a need to change the narrative from a purely activation and employment perspective to a more nuanced understanding of active and social inclusion strategies.
After years of implementing significant austerity measures in many European countries, there is a need to promote a social investment logic, which counterbalances the social impact of austerity policies. The European Commission and the Maltese Presidency aim to bring Europe closer to its citizens. A key challenge to mind the gap between the European and local levels is to ensure that the social protection principles put forward by European initiatives resonate with the views and responsibilities of local communities, so that they feel that these initiatives are relevant for them.