Chris Beckett says social workers will never beat social
exclusion until unemployment is ended.
Social work can’t “fix” social exclusion. A society that was
serious about tackling social exclusion would start, not by hiring
more social workers, but by outlawing unemployment.
This could be done by making it an obligation on the state to
provide sufficient work by investing in public projects. This would
create the requisite number of real, useful jobs – there are plenty
of useful jobs needing to be done, not least in the social care
sector. The state would then be able to abolish benefits to anyone
capable of working.
A healthy society would not tolerate a significant proportion of
its population being excluded from the economy. I know that “the
economy”, in some people’s minds, is just boring stuff about money
and interest rates and gross national product, but really it is
much more than that. It is the totality of the ways we interact to
meet each other’s needs and utilise each other’s skills.
The economy is society in its practical aspect, so those who are
excluded from the economy are therefore also socially excluded.
They are people who the rest of society has designated as useless.
In some cases they may also be people who have designated
themselves as useless, in which case the rest of society confirms
The standard objection to proposals like mine is that public
investment on that scale would be inflationary. This argument does,
however, rather give the lie to other alleged attempts to tackle
unemployment, since it reveals that the goal of full employment is
in reality subordinate to other economic considerations.
Governments committed to “tackling” employment thus turn out to
be rather like supermarkets which “keep a close watch on prices”,
conveniently forgetting that it is they who set the prices in the
first place. A government that was serious about social inclusion
would find other ways of controlling inflation than by leaving a
percentage of the population on the scrap heap.
As social workers are well placed to testify, the human cost of
social exclusion is huge, not only to the excluded but to the rest
of society. Of course people are more likely to turn to drugs,
crime and violence when told they are surplus to requirements. They
want to escape from themselves or to prove themselves or to give
vent to their rage.
What is more, each new excluded generation entrenches and
multiplies the price to be paid as the psychology of uselessness
creeps deeper into the soul. “Oppression” is an overused word in
social work, but this is real, deep oppression. It is also a time
bomb in the making.
In a genuinely inclusive society, as in a good household,
everyone would be both helped to, and expected to, participate. We
social workers may talk about empowerment and user participation
but without both at the economic level, we will barely even scratch
the surface of the problem. Perhaps it’s time to lift our noses
from case files and get political again?
Chris Beckett is lecturer in social work at Anglia
Polytechnic University, Cambridge.