Article - New Approaches to Poverty and Exclusion: A Strategic Framework

Jean-Pierre Voyer

There is growing understanding that exclusion is often the result of many individual, family, and social factors reinforcing each other in negative ways — suggesting the need for more co-ordinated, comprehensive approaches to finding solutions.

Jean-Pierre Voyer is Executive Director of the Policy Research Initiative.

The following article is an edited version of a presentation given by Jean-Pierre Voyer in Ottawa, on March 27, 2003, at a conference organized jointly by the Canadian Council on Social Development and Human Resources Development Canada. The theme of the conference was Building a Social Inclusion Research Agenda. The complete version of the speech can be found at <>. Accessed May 7, 2003.

Iwill be presenting some ideas on the content of a strategic framework that could guide research to improve our policies to fight poverty and social exclusion. While my remarks are cast at a more general level, many of you will know that several federal government departments are collaborating under the Policy Research Initiative (PRI) umbrella on just such a policy research exercise. The project is called New Approaches to Addressing Poverty and Exclusion, and we are just getting started. It is fundamentally an internal fact-finding exercise at present, but one that could be of considerable importance to future directions in consultation and policy-making around poverty and exclusion.

Throughout the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) world, there has been much new thinking about policies that could address poverty and exclusion in a more effective manner.

  • Increasingly, the problem has been formulated not only as the lack of income at a single point in time in a person's life, but rather in terms of a persistent lack of the income and other resources needed to enable people to participate in the mainstream economy and society. These newer perspectives have been greatly supported by the recent emergence of longitudinal data that are beginning to allow us to examine the dynamics of poverty and exclusion, its persistence over the course of life, and the role played by individual and household characteristics, and by employment.

  • We have learned more about the effectiveness of policies that help people make the transition from unemployment into work. As well, there is now a much richer understanding of the work disincentives inherent in the structure of some transfer programs, such as Employment Insurance or social assistance. This knowledge has resulted in growing interest in “make-workpay” policies.

  • There is growing understanding that exclusion is often the result of many individual, family, and social factors reinforcing each other in negative ways — suggesting the need for more co-ordinated, comprehensive approaches to finding solutions. This understanding is reflected in more holistic interventions both at the level of the individual being assisted and in terms of a growing wish for broader frameworks of policy co-ordination.

  • There is growing understanding of the extent of disadvantage, particularly its persistence. In Canada, for example, research by Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) shows that persistent poverty is concentrated in five high at-risk groups. These are people with work-limiting disabilities, recent immigrants, single mothers, unattached older people (until they reach pension age), and Aboriginal peoples.

  • New strategic approaches to measuring and tackling exclusion are being developed in Europe, with the experience of the United Kingdom being particularly interesting. In some countries, again mainly in Europe, there has been a revival of interest in the concept of a basic income for all, either on an annual basis or a lifetime basis. Quebec has recently introduced a law that explicitly addresses poverty and exclusion. This is unique in Canada and rare in the rest of the world.

  • Increasingly, issues are being seen in the context of basic human rights. Social policy needs to be seen through the eyes of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as from the perspective of the legislation that enables a particular policy. In areas of human rights, poverty, and exclusion, it is important that we reduce a perceived disconnect between Canada’s voice in formulating international conventions and our internal policy development.

The implications of these new directions for practical policy-making are still far from clear, especially when they would be superimposed on an existing policy framework that, on balance, works reasonably well. A new way of looking at a problem does not necessarily mean existing policies need to be changed. The empirical findings from the newly emerging longitudinal data are often still quite tentative. No consensus has yet emerged on the operational meaning of concepts, such as social exclusion. What we need above all is good research that will allow us to assess the potential of these newer directions for policymaking in Canada.

A Strategic Framework Is a Precondition for Good Policy Research

Coherent policy research needs to be based on an integrated intellectual framework. By a strategic framework, I refer to a document, or a series of documents, that will allow all parties in the system — researchers, policy designers, politicians, and people who represent the poor and excluded — to communicate with each other about future directions and to better harmonize their activities, where that makes sense. It would include a common terminology, lessons learned about policy designs and program effectiveness, general principles related to the scope and goals of future policies, and so on.

I examine five features of such a strategic framework, beginning with terminology.

Agreeing on the Terminology

The first task of a practical framework would be to provide a language that allows us to communicate with each other about what we are trying to achieve. If we are ambiguous in our description of where we want to go, we are unlikely to get there.

Policy development in this area has been plagued by too many concepts and too few words to go around. We have often been guilty of appropriating old words to new meanings when the old definition is still very much in active use. Take poverty as an example.

For most people, poverty has something to do with low incomes. The Gage Canadian Dictionary defines poverty as “the condition of not having enough income to maintain a standard of living regarded as normal in a community.” And that is also the concept behind our various policydriven statistical measures of poverty such as Low Income Measures (LIMs) and Low Income Cut-Offs (LICOs). However, others use a much broader definition. The recent Quebec legislation defines poverty in terms of “deprivation of resources, means, choices and power to acquire and maintain economic self-sufficiency and favour active integration and participation in Quebec society.” This definition mirrors that in United Nations conventions and in recent thinking that takes a more multi-dimensional approach to poverty. This definition goes well beyond low incomes and encompasses what many people mean by social exclusion.

There is no right or wrong here. There are excellent grounds for using concepts in different contexts with different meanings, especially as we are all trying to escape the bonds of old ways of thinking in our search for better solutions. However, the result can be much confusion when policy experts use language in ways that are quite different from that used by the public.

Finding a common terminology will, I expect, result in the use of cumbersome adjectives and phrases such as “poverty based on relative income position,” or “multi-dimensional poverty,” or “exclusion based on lack or resources,” or “exclusion based on lack of participation.” At this stage, however, consistency might be a better goal than elegance.

Surrounding each of the different concepts of poverty and exclusion are related concepts whose meaning needs to be pinned down in a consistent way. Equity, equality, cohesion, inclusion, universality, targeting, and dignity are examples. There is a similar need for a common terminology to describe policy instruments and measures. For example, the phrase “social investment” is useful when examining human resource development policies, whose purpose is to make a specific difference to people’s subsequent lives. Unfortunately, its meaning is greatly diluted when it is applied — as is so often the case today — as a synonym for social expenditure.

Sorting out the language is a tedious business, but it must be done if we are to make significant progress. I am not saying we need to stop all policy research until we agree on the language. We would wait forever I expect. However, it is a fundamentally important step, which should be undertaken earlier rather than later.

Rethinking Our Goals and Vision of a Better Future

A strategic framework would review the principles underlying the setting of medium- and long-term objectives. For example, what type of “safety net” works best in a world focused primarily on human capital investment? Should we be moving in the direction of individual learning and educational accounts that would empower individuals to take greater responsibility for developing their own human capital? Or do we concentrate on developing learning infrastructure from early childhood development facilities to adult learning institutions? The answers will reflect both practical “what works” considerations as well as more fundamental factors relating to the social contract: What is the responsibility of individuals and what belongs to the state? A strategic framework cannot answer such questions, but it can provide a language and a set of principles that should help us find answers.

The Size of the Policy Envelope

A strategic framework would describe principles that govern the scope of the policies that should be included: What is on the table and what is not? As we broaden our policy objectives, we increase the number of tools that must be taken into account and the number of players that need to be involved. This may seem self-evident, but we often fail to pay enough attention to the link between the levels at which policy objectives are cast and the scope of the policy-making process.

  • If we limit ourselves to policies addressed to poverty, and if by poverty we mean low incomes at a point in time, then the policy envelope consists of the traditional tax-transfer system: pensions, employment insurance, refundable tax credits, social assistance and the like. The decision-making bodies — and those who will be consulted and implicated in the decisionmaking process — will, to a considerable extent, be owned by people whose main preoccupation is with matters related to equity, exclusion, and low incomes.

  • If we enlarge the concept of poverty to recognize a range of factors that exclude people from, say, the labour market, then we encompass not only the tax-transfer system but also a range of social and employment services. This is the policy scope that seems to be implicit in much current policy thinking, with its emphasis on poverty dynamics, on the multiple determinants of low incomes and joblessness, and on more holistic support in welfareto- work or unemployment-to-work transitions. That is, the focus is still very much on the most disadvantaged people — and the policy constituency is quite similar to the income-at-a-point-in-time constituency, but with greater emphasis on prevention.

  • If we take an even broader scope that encompasses the range of factors that prevent people from playing a full role in society, then the policy envelope widens to encompass the education, health care, and criminal justice systems. These systems provide the skills that will prevent exclusion from the labour market, or ease the health and safety problems that could exclude us from a full life in society. The policy process associated with this envelope is, for the most part, owned by those whose main preoccupation is with the education, skills, safety, and health of the whole population, not only the disadvantaged community. The associated research agenda would be quite different from the narrower poverty agenda, and quite different people would be involved in formulating that agenda.

  • If we take the broadest view of social inclusion or cohesion, we would want to rethink our whole set of socio-economic and cultural goals, including changing the culture of workplaces and communities to make them more inclusive and respectful of diversity. Here, the envelope extends to the practices of employers and unions, of communities and civil society, and to the, often limited, government policies that affect those practices.

We therefore face a delicate balancing act in our policies directed to poverty and exclusion. We must aim high so we are addressing the real issues, but not so high that implementation becomes impossible.

Pressures on Policies and on Needed Policy Responses

A strategic framework would identify trends in poverty and exclusion and, especially, would help anticipate future needs. The HRDC analysis I referred to earlier points to a growing concentration in poverty of five at-risk groups, which provides a powerful signal of future pressures on policy — as do trends associated with homelessness, the working poor, and child poverty.

We define poverty and exclusion relatively, in relation to the mainstream. The characteristics of those in this “mainstream” are likely to change rapidly and so, in consequence, will the characteristics of those excluded from that mainstream. For example, let us suppose a future norm where most families have two people employed, often in the knowledge and service industries. They have increasing flexibility to make work–life balance choices within the family, including choices with respect to child and elder care, time for lifelong learning and the timing of retirement. In such a world, people with low skills and unstable household living arrangements could fall even further behind.

A strategic framework would help identify policy development needs in response to these changed demands, including priorities for new experimentation. Earnings supplementation (along the lines of earned income tax credits in the United States and the United Kingdom, and makework- pay experiments such as those carried out in Canada) and lifetime accounts are obvious examples of possible policy instruments that would almost certainly be highlighted in any strategic plan.

Take individual lifetime accounts, such as Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) or individual educational or learning accounts, as an example. Under which circumstances are they likely to be appropriate? Too often, today’s debate is driven by ideological concerns. Yet in reality, lifetime accounts do not respect ideology. They can be used to privatize pensions, or health care financing, or even employment insurance. Or they can be used in a collectivist manner to, for example, provide all citizens with endowments at birth or at graduation. Indeed, they can be simply a variant on schemes that would provide a basic income for all. In the pension area, Sweden has introduced an RRSP-like account on a mandatory basis within it’s public pay-as-you-go pension system.

The real effects of policy are as much driven by the mix of policy instruments as by the design of any particular policy. Today, the determination of the balance between tax and transfer instruments, between income support and services, between services and information, between universal and targeted programs, is largely the result of ad hoc, often budgetary, processes. A strategic framework would not, and should not, replace the practical reconciliation of diverse interests that are implicit in these ad hoc processes. However, it might be able to add some transparency to the process, and encourage more informed debate on the consequences of changing the weighting of various programs.

Measurement Tools and Policy Research Priorities

Finally, a strategic framework would also set out criteria for developing the statistics and research that would support policies cast at different levels of objectives.

One dimension would address the needed statistics, research tools, and priorities for analysis. It is important to understand how far we are from what is really needed. Our present instruments are very crude for understanding the heterogeneity of the lives of people facing poverty and exclusion. The kind of data referred to in Geoff Rowe’s article in this issue of Horizons gives a glimpse of the kind of data that is really needed, but he is talking about the whole population. The demands on research are multiplied when we look at vulnerable populations.

However, it is also important to stress how far we have come. Recent technology has greatly increased our capacity to do effective research in this area and to collect good empirical evidence. More data has been collected for small population groups, such as Aboriginal peoples. Longitudinal data is becoming more available, as witnessed by the HRDC work on the five at-risk groups. There is much room for optimism if we get our intellectual frameworks right, and if we can line up institutional responsibilities for funding and conducting that research and data collection. A strategic framework can help in doing this.

Another dimension should be establishing priorities for experimentation, on a larger scale and for newer, and much less expensive, laboratory experiments in the social area. The Canadian Self-Sufficiency Project, which successfully experimented with earnings supplementation for single mothers, is well known worldwide. Why are we not applying it universally? Should we be experimenting with its application in the Aboriginal community and for people with work-related disabilities? A strategic framework could set out some general guidelines describing the conditions under which such initiatives are likely to be successful and would help identify the needed next steps in experimentation.

I conclude by underscoring the likely frustrations and futility of attempting to undertake big thinking on a statistical, research, and accountability agenda independent of a fleshed out version of the other elements of the strategic framework. Questions of which population groups are to be targeted — and with which objectives and which policy instruments — matter a great deal. Without agreement here, there will be much spinning of wheels. However, with goodwill among many partners working within an agreed framework, much can be accomplished.


Water Counts

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Earth, with its diverse and abundant life forms, including over six billion humans, is facing a serious water crisis. This crisis is one of water governance, essentially caused by the ways in which we mismanage water.

In truth, issues of attitude and behaviour problems lie at the heart of the crisis. We know most of what the problems are, and a good deal about where they are. We have adequate knowledge and expertise to deal with them. We are very much aware of excellent concepts, such as equity and sustainability. Yet, inertia at the leadership level, and a world population that is not fully aware of the scale of the problem, means we fail to take necessary corrective actions.

The World Water Development Report is a major initiative of the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme. It lays the foundations for regular, systemwide monitoring and reporting by the UN, together with development of standardized methodologies and data. The Report is organized into six main sections: a background, an evaluation of the world’s water resources, an examination of the needs for, uses of, and demands on water, a scrutiny of water management, seven representative case studies highlighting different water scenarios, and conclusions and annexes.

For information on acquiring the World Water Development Report, see <>. Accessed May 8, 2003.