Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Reconceptualising Social Exclusion: A Critical Response to the Neoliberal Welfare Reform Agenda and the Underclass Thesis

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Reconceptualising Social Exclusion: A Critical Response to the Neoliberal Welfare Reform Agenda and the Underclass Thesis

Article excerpt

Introduction

The welfare reform agendas of western industrialised nations are underpinned by contentious assumptions about human behaviour. Socially excluded individuals are assumed to be either capable actors at risk of 'moral hazard' by the provision and availability of welfare services (e.g. Murray 1984; 1994), or they are viewed as members of society with the most severe behavioural problems (e.g. Mead 1986). Together these views constitute a persuasive account of the role played by individuals, in interaction with their environment, as explanatory sources of their exclusion; these views are captured by the underclass thesis. The influence of the underclass thesis on welfare reform is such that it legitimises tightening eligibility requirements and the implementation of punitive and coercive policies, manifest in 'workfare' programs.

According to some authors (Deacon 2002; Deacon & Mann 1999; Mann 1992; 1994; 1999; Williams, Popay & Oakley 1999), critics of the current welfare reform agenda have been reluctant to respond explicitly to arguments about the behaviour of the excluded and to acknowledge individuals as capable actors. Their contributions tend to emphasise structural constraints on human behaviour, such as economic restructuring, the anonymous power of social forces, spatial segregation, post-Fordism, labour market disaggregation and the restructuring of welfare regimes (Mann 1999: 149-150). Recognition of choice, demoralisation and a dependency culture are largely missing from these analyses, yet these dimensions of exclusion lie at the heart of conservative arguments about the behaviour of the poor and the need for reform of the welfare system. Critics of the current welfare reform agenda have generally neglected to critically examine the behaviour of the poor and their capacity for action. While the omission of agency in left responses to the underclass phenomenon is understandable, because contributors may in fact legitimise what it is they seek to dismiss by participating in the debate (Deacon & Mann 1999: 414), it is nonetheless problematic.

This paper articulates the need to respond to the conception of human behaviour that underpins current welfare reform. More specifically, it is my intention in this paper to demonstrate that the omission of human agency in the contributions of concerned critics has served to strengthen the credibility of the conservative view of the sources of exclusion. At the heart of this debate is the question of agency, viewed in terms of the behaviour of the poor and their capacity for action, contrasted with the structural constraints on their behaviour. For critics to mount a persuasive critique of current welfare reform measures, it is necessary to respond explicitly to the assumptions made by conservatives about human agency and to recognise the poor as active agents who make choices between options that are available to them. This is a task that may be achieved by reconceptualising the concept of social exclusion and highlighting a 'strong' rather than a 'weak' version.

Welfare Reform

The decades following World War II were a time of consensus in much of the developed world about the need for state-funded welfare. Comprehensive social provisions were adopted by governments in the industrialised nations, pointing to the acceptance of what came to be known as the "welfare state' (Midgley 1997: 134). On both the political left and right it was generally accepted that the state had a responsibility to ensure the welfare of its citizens and the debates at the time largely concerned the degree of responsibility the state should bear for the provision of welfare. For those on the right, the welfare state was expected to enable the capitalist free market to function and to maintain its legitimacy, while for those on the left it was expected to attenuate the extremes of inequality that were generated in a free market economy (Jamrozik 2001: 2-3). …

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