Policy and Political Action

Policy & Political Action

Briefing Note on Social Exclusion

What do the evacuation of aboriginal people from the community of Kashechewan, 52 gun deaths in Toronto in 2005, and thousands of torched cars and buildings in France have in common? These, and many other issues, may be viewed through the lens of social exclusion.


Social exclusion refers to structures and dynamic processes of inequality among groups which ultimately produce a complex of unequal outcomes. Individuals and communities that are socially excluded are structurally disadvantaged from access to critical economic, social, political, and cultural resources that determine the quality of membership in society. Social exclusion is an expression of unequal power among groups in society.

The government of the United Kingdom uses social exclusion as “a short-hand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, discrimination, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime, bad health and family breakdown.” Various forms of exclusion are often combined and mutually reinforcing thereby creating webs of vulnerability. The racialization of poverty in Canada, for example, has increasingly been made visible by segregated neighbourhoods where racialized groups are relegated to substandard housing, limited access to employment, and inadequate social services.

Social exclusion is harmful to individuals and society. Absolute poverty, relative deprivation, and social exclusion are directly linked with ill health and premature death. One illustration is that social exclusion-- involving processes of material deprivation, discrimination, and exclusion from common societal activities and decision-making-- is the means by which low income causes cardiovascular disease. Experiences of powerlessness, voicelessness, lack of recognition and sense of belonging, diminished life chances, and despair may increase social isolation, addiction, suicidal tendencies, and violence.


Early Childhood is Critical for Long-Term Health and Well-Being:

  • Early life experiences have a lifelong influence on brain and body development. As family income falls, the likelihood that children will experience problems increases. This is significant for the children who experience restricted brain development; reduced language development and literacy; and poorer mental and physical health throughout life. It is also significant for societies that need their skills.
  • There are more than 1.2 million Canadian children living in poverty. A large number of these children (443,000) live in Ontario, where the child poverty rate was16% in 2003.
  • The experience of poverty is not randomly distributed across populations. Child poverty rates in 2001 were 18% for all children but 28% for children with disabilities, 34% for visible minority children, 40% for children with aboriginal identity, and 49% for children who recently immigrated. Poor visible minority families in Toronto went from making up 37% of the total poor family population in higher poverty neighbourhoods in 1981 to 77% in 2001. Nearly half (47%) of women with children in one study who were married one year and became lone mothers the next year experienced low income in that year.
  • Child poverty rates vary with and are a function of government policies. An international comparison done by UNICEF found that government interventions of tax and income transfers reduced the child poverty rates by 5% in the US, by 8% in Canada, and by 10% in Denmark. Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark all have child poverty rates after tax and income transfers below 5% Clearly, government action can have a dramatic impact on child poverty.
  • Community health assessment and population-based public health interventions can improve health outcomes. Prenatal and early childhood home visits by public health nurses in one study reduced child abuse and neglect, the use of welfare, and criminal behaviour on the part of unmarried, low-income mothers for up to 15 years after the birth of the first child.

Income Inequalities, Social Gradients, and Social Exclusion have an Impact on Health:

  • Although poverty is clearly linked with ill health and shorter life expectancy, there is also evidence to suggest that social hierarchies impact health. The Whitehall Study followed 10,000 British civil servants for nearly two decades. Although they were not poor and had access to medical care, men between 40-64 years of age in the clerical and manual occupational grades had mortality rates 3½ times higher than senior administrators over a ten year period. Factors that seem related to lower status associated with higher mortality include stress, control over work, and coping skills.
  • The distribution of wealth is more unequal than the distribution of income. The wealthiest 10 per cent of family units held 53 per cent of the wealth in Canada in 1999. The poorest 10 per cent of family units had negative average wealth or more debts than assets.
  • The widest income inequality gap in Canada is in Toronto. For every $1 dollar the poorest families in Toronto had to spend, the richest families had $27.
  • Poverty and economic inequality is linked with race and gender. Workers identified as visible minorities earned on average $4,600 lower than earnings for all other workers in 2001. A woman earns an average of 72.5 cents for every dollar that a man earns in Canada. Wage gaps for aboriginal, new immigrant, and visible minorities are even greater that the wage gap between white men and women.
  • As income inequality increases, so does violent crime, including homicide by firearm. Growing gaps between haves and have-nots are associated with deterioration of social environments, decreased trust, decreased involvement in community life, and declines in population health.

Policy Response

We are asking for the following policy responses or action:

  • Registered nurses urge the government to continue its commitment to rebuilding social programs. Social assistance rates urgently need to be raised.
  • An integrated approach to poverty requires equitable access to employment that pays a living wage and has safe working conditions. While we applaud the increase of Ontario’s minimum wage to $7.75/hr effective Feb. 1, 2006 and a further increase to $8/hr as of Feb. 1, 2007, the National Anti-Poverty Organization estimates a living wage of at least $10/hr is needed to escape poverty.
  • To support early childhood development, programs and services in the following areas have shown to be effective: family strengthening programs; centre-based early childhood education and care programs; early detection and intervention programs; and community mobilization programs.
  • Resist forces urging tax cuts and “tax relief” in favour of greater social and community investment.

Neal Brooks on “Why I Like To Pay My Taxes”:

Taxes allow us to discharge our moral obligations to one another. They enable us to establish democratically controlled public institutions that attempt to prevent exploitation in market exchanges and family relations; to ensure mutuality in our interdependence upon each other; to compensate those who are inevitably harmed through no fault of their own by the operation of a dynamic market economy that we all benefit from; to ensure a more socially acceptable distribution to income and wealth than that which results from market forces alone; to strive for gender and racial equality; and to provide full entitlement and open access to those services essential for human development. As a result, taxes buy us a relatively high level of social cohesion and social equality and therefore the benefits of community existence. What would any of us have without community?


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Briefing Note