Social inclusion in the family support sector

AFRC Briefing No. 19 – March 2011

Relevance of social inclusion principles to the family support sector

The concept of social inclusion (see Box 1) is highly relevant to the family support sector, particularly due to the links between issues faced by parents and their impact on child development and wellbeing. For example, family structure and functioning co-occur and combine with community-level disadvantage to result in social exclusion (Hayes & Gray, 2008). There is also strong evidence of the impact of social exclusion on the parent-child relationship, parenting and family functioning (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997; Evans, 2004).

Family support services can play a vital role in fostering social inclusion and in promoting conditions that allow children experiencing difficult family circumstances to participate in and benefit from mainstream life (Healy & Darlington, 1999). The overall ability of services to attract and engage the most disadvantaged families, however, remains unclear. For example, data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children suggests that families with a low socioeconomic status are less likely to access health and community services for their children, but are more likely to seek material help and use crisis support services (Blakemore, Shipley, Waters, & Zubrick, 2009).

Any discussion about the ability of family support services to attract and engage disadvantaged families should be prefaced by an exploration of the extent to which this is, or should be, the primary focus of service provision in any one setting. Should services be specifically and exclusively engaged in ameliorating conditions for disadvantaged families, to help facilitate their social inclusion? Or is it their role to keep all families connected and engaged with services and other avenues of support during periods of vulnerability? If both, what emphasis is given to each focus of service delivery? It can be argued on the one hand that helping to maintain social inclusion is important at various stages of life-cycle vulnerability, for example, at the point of family breakdown where financial insecurity may be an issue. Early intervention and prevention strategies that are provided during these periods of vulnerability play an important role in promoting social inclusion (Australian Government, 2009). On the other hand, families who are most in need may be considered as a service priority, and services could be located to their benefit. It makes sense that both approaches are needed, however, individual service aims and resources will dictate the extent to which a service can address both categories of need.

Box 1: What is social inclusion? What is social exclusion?

Social inclusion and social exclusion are complex and contested terms, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to engage in an in-depth discussion about the definitions of the terms and the extent to which they are complementary. Basic definitions are provided below, but readers are encouraged to access the many resources included at the end of the paper if they are interested in reading further.

In the Australian policy context social inclusion is conceptualised as the opportunity for people to:

  • learn by participating in education and training;
  • work by participating in employment, in voluntary work and in family and caring;
  • engage by connecting with people and by using their local community's resources; and
  • have a voice so that they can influence decisions that affect them (Australian Social Inclusion Board [ASIB], 2010).

Social inclusion can be seen as a goal to work towards: a way of raising the bar and understanding where we want to be and how to get there. Social exclusion, on the other hand, provides a more complex, multidimensional picture of disadvantage extending beyond financial difficulty to incorporate other aspects of disadvantage such as barriers to participation and connectedness.

Who is most affected?

The following five groups of people were identified by the ASIB as appearing at least twice among the results in the compendium of social inclusion indicators, indicating their vulnerability to aspects of social exclusion:

  • aged people;
  • public housing renters;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people;
  • one-parent families; and
  • people of non-English speaking backgrounds (ASIB, 2009).

What makes a service socially inclusive?

In an ideal form, socially inclusive services will ensure that all people are engaged in the service and its programs, as well as acting for social change and working to overcome disadvantage. Inclusive services:

  • are easy for all-comers to access and use;
  • acknowledge people's shared humanity, and celebrate diversity;
  • promote acceptance, participation and belonging;
  • recognise varying needs; and
  • recognise and respond to the inequalities in people's access to power and control over resources (Carbone, Fraser, Ramburuth, & Nelms, 2004).