What is social exclusion and how does it relate to poverty?

Nowadays, there is no consensus on the definition of social exclusion, even though it is related to terms like poverty, inequality, inability to adjust socially, segregation, marginalisation, among others. However, there are certain factors that differentiate it from other terms.

When referring to social exclusion, those who are marginalized do not have access to or experience difficulty accessing opportunities for jobs and education as well as participating culturally and politically in the society where they live.

These issues are not solely economic problems as they also refer to structural processes that increasingly affect different groups of people in various ways: economically, in terms of jobs, education, healthcare, housing, relationships, participation, etc. This is why current ideas about social exclusion go beyond the traditional economic view that social exclusion equates to being poor. Additionally, social exclusion is starting to be seen as a process that affects each individual differently depending on their individual potential and their social context rather than a state of being.

As we have previously discussed, not all problems related to social exclusion are economical, although a lack of resources increases the possibility of being socially excluded. Being poor is not a necessary or sufficient condition to be excluded, even though it often accompanies it.

For example, in societies that have similar economic development, being poor in the city is quite different from being poor in the countryside, or being poor as a man or a woman, as a native to the country or foreigner, being poor with or without a disability, etc. This means that social exclusion is multidimensional and goes beyond economic resources which affect exclusion to different vital areas.

Social exclusion is a phenomenon that is multidimensional, structural, dynamic and caused by many factors and can be defined by an accumulation of shortcomings that are interrelated and lead back into each other. Studies suggest that there are seven dimensions to social exclusion:

  • Financial
  • Work
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Housing
  • Relational
  • Citizenship and participation

An eighth dimension has been added recently: digital exclusion or digital divide.



The following are some of the most impacting structural factors that result in exclusion:

  • Transformations in the current job market shaken up by industrial restructuring, relocation, outsourcing, flexible working conditions, uncertainty about job continuity, etc. All of these have facilitated the switch between stable employment to unstable employment.
  • Lack of regulation in welfare states leads to shortcomings and exclusion especially for housing, work and property.
  • Social exclusion includes immigration when referring to an immigrant’s status in society regarding their access to civil rights, political and social rights, and their right to participation and equality in the society where they live.
  • The traditional idea of family has changed over the years. In the past, families have been the primary caregivers for their elders and members who are physically or psychologically disabled, mentally ill, children and adolescents, etc. The family has changed from being the unit of support it used to be.

Referring to exclusion as dynamic refers to the idea of it being a process and not a specific situation. In this way, social exclusion refers to an itinerary that has a start and en end that passes through different phases that are not linear: start, recovery, deterioration, becoming chronic, etc. Whether someone is in one phase or another is determined by the pace or intensity of the accumulation of social disadvantages, which distances them even more from integration into society. In this way, it is possible to talk about different levels of exclusion:

  • Vulnerability: This refers to non-idiosynchratic characteristics that lead people to feel weak, disadvantaged or have problems in performance and social mobility. This may act as a restraint or obstacle for changing social groups to adapt to society such as young people, gender or ethnic minority.
  • Instability: This refers to individuals or groups that would be highlighted as living in relatively inadequate conditions with a low standard of living. For example, only working seasonally, low wages, difficulty finding a place to live or lack of adequate living conditions.
  • Light, moderate, and serious exclusion

Each individual acts differently when faced with a situation of structural risk or vulnerability according to the resources they have available to them: social position, education, housing, civil status, etc. All of this means that no two forms of exclusion are the same. Exclusion is personal, unique and although it may be caused by various factors (handicap, disability, physical or mental illness, addiction, etc.), these do not affect everyone in the same way.

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