Social Challenges: Social Exclusion

Social exclusion means a lack of belonging, acceptance and recognition. People who are socially excluded are more economically and socially vulnerable, and hence they tend to have diminished life experiences. 1


The causes of social exclusion have been attributed to the economic and social changes in free-market economies, and to weaknesses in government policies and services. Because people who are socially excluded are vulnerable, some may choose to assert themselves or to push back in inappropriate ways. A study in the United Kingdom found that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by people who are socially excluded.2

But social exclusion can happen to anyone. As our society speeds forward to new technological and economic heights, it elevates some people – and leaves others behind. Individuals who belong to underprivileged groups or minority social groups are at higher risk of facing social exclusion.

Poverty is one of the key factors in exclusion. The CCSD report, The Progress of Canada's Children 2002, found that children living in poor families are less likely to have positive experiences at school, and they are less likely to participate in recreation. As well, children who live in persistent poverty are twice as likely to live in a "dysfunctional" family, they are twice as likely to live with violence, and more than three times as likely to live with a depressed parent – all risk factors for social exclusion and eventual criminality.

Unfortunately, child poverty in Canada shows no signs of diminishing. While the rate decreased slightly in the latter half of the 1990s, the latest figures indicate a child poverty rate of 15.6% – nearly one in six children. That is even higher than the rate of 15.2% recorded in 1989 when the House of Commons unanimously committed to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Instead, the number of children going hungry and the number of families becoming homeless increased substantially throughout the 1990s, further excluding these Canadians.

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows, concentrated areas of deprivation and exclusion are also growing in Canada's urban centres. Poverty by Postal Code, a CCSD study commissioned by the United Way of Metropolitan Toronto, found that the number of very poor neighbourhoods had grown at an alarming rate in just 20 years. The 2001 Census data showed that certain groups were at particularly high risk of being socially excluded and resigned to these deprived areas – in particular, new immigrants, young workers, and Aboriginal people.

As noted earlier, the UK study found that social exclusion and deprivation consistently emerge as underlying factors in the over-representation of certain visible minority groups in the criminal justice system.3 In Western countries, members of disadvantaged minority groups are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for violent crimes, property crimes, and drug-related crimes.4

Canada is no exception. Data from Ontario correctional facilities reveal a prison admission rate of 705 per 100,000 population for Canadians of European ancestry, and a rate of 3,686 per 100,000 for Canadians of African ancestry. Aboriginals are also significantly over-represented in the Canadian criminal justice system.5 (Also see a further discussion in the section on The Well Being of Aboriginal Peoples.)

Ethnic disparities in the correctional system seem to be the result of both discrimination and biases in the system, as well as disproportionate offending within certain populations. However, research shows that those minority groups which are disproportionately involved in offending are those which are economically and socially disadvantaged, in many cases as a result of historical discrimination.6

In the UK, a social inclusion approach that was adopted in 1997 seems to have already helped to substantially diminish the risk factors for criminality. Their Social Exclusion Unit was launched as a multi-sectoral way to try to tackle poverty, housing, health, and crime issues. It aimed at stopping people from "falling through the cracks" in social services, and reintegrating those who had already fallen behind.

As a parallel to the Social Exclusion Unit, the UK's Neighbourhood Renewal Unit was created to narrow the gap between deprived neighbourhoods and the rest of the country. Since the launch of these initiatives, there has been a 66% reduction in people sleeping on streets at night, a 33% reduction in the number of children excluded from school, and the successful placement of over 17,000 disaffected youth into school, training or employment.

The CCSD is one of several organizations in Canada advocating for a social inclusion approach for social policies and programs. For more information on this approach, see the following resources:

Other Social Challenges

    Well-being of Aboriginal People