The unequal impact of social exclusion in Spain (2007-2013)

Nerea Zugasti, Lecturer at the Department of Social Work of the Public University of Navarra

In this article we reflect on the changes that took place in social exclusion in Spain between 2007 and 2013. Are the factors that increased the risk of experiencing social exclusion situations in the pre-crisis period maintained? What difficulties have intensified these situations most clearly? We will defend the notion that, despite it being well known that employment difficulties have soared, problems in housing and health are key factors for understanding the increase in social exclusion. We will also look at the reasons that explain why certain social groups, such as the younger population, are currently at a disadvantage. Preventive factors such as investment in education, maintain their impact today while others, such as being a foreign citizen, continue to multiply the risk of experiencing social exclusion.

1. Introduction

In recent years an evident transformation in the nature and intensity of social needs has been witnessed within the Spanish context. There has been a clear increase in the number of people experiencing situations of poverty and exclusion while the importance of new profiles among excluded persons has become patent. It is evident that the economic situation during the period of crisis has contributed to tougher living conditions in a large number of homes in Spain and this has had a significant impact on the most vulnerable groups, with many families finding themselves confronted with a major accumulation of difficulties in satisfying the most basic of needs. We will analyse the changes in social exclusion within the Spanish context in the period between 2007 and 2013 paying special attention to the difficulties that have most intensified this phenomenon and their differential impact by social group.

However, what is social exclusion? Public opinion relates many ideas with social exclusion, the large majority of them perhaps linked to lack of income and situations of extreme need. However, when talking about social exclusion it is necessary to add a differentiated multidimensional perspective to this focus on economic issues, characteristic of the poverty indicator. Thus, for example, an elderly woman living alone with a “generous” pension may not be poor but may find herself suffering exclusion due to a hypothetical situation of social isolation that is combined with other elements (dependency, problems in housing, etc.). In short, social exclusion and its measurement cannot be circumscribed to one exclusive sphere of life, as it is a situation involving an accumulation of difficulties observable through different indicators. These characteristics make measurement complicated, to the point where the lack of tools available to analyse it from a quantitative perspective has become evident. 

Difficulties in employment, housing and health have intensified social exclusion during the economic crisis in Spain.

However, studies such as those by Rodríguez Cabrero et al. (2004) and Sanzo (2009) show the advances in proposals in the Spanish case. At the European level and linked to the objectives of the Europa 2020 strategy, one indicator that has become increasingly used is AROPE, which measures the population at risk of poverty or social exclusion: at risk of poverty following social transfers, in situations of severe material shortage, or living in households with very low labour intensity. However, putting the focus of attention only on three situations implies leaving out key elements for understanding social exclusion, including social relations and access to public services, among others.  

In order to fill this gap in social research, the measuring system of social exclusion used in the FOESSA surveys and in the reports on the social situation by the same foundation (Lorenzo, 2014; Laparra, 2014), to which we refer in this analysis, breaks down that multidimensional view of social exclusion into three core areas: the economic level (employment, economic poverty, deprivation), social participation (isolation, lack of support, social unrest, etc.) and the political area (limitations in access to systems of social protection, or to political citizenship). The central idea of the analysis results in the Social Exclusion Synthetic Index (Índice Sintético de Exclusión Social, ISES), created based on 35 indicators linked to the three core areas previously mentioned (see table 1). This represents an important opening up of the focus of attention with respect to the previously mentioned AROPE indicator and makes the multidimensional approach to social exclusion more complex. 

This calculation allows, furthermore, detection of the accumulation of problems and positioning of the individuals and households in different strata, which range from severe social exclusion to full integration. It is considered that households whose Synthetic Exclusion Index is greater than 4 are in situations of severe social exclusion, as can be observed in table 2. The system also facilitates the obtaining of rates of social exclusion (% of population affected), a key element for measuring the differential impact of the crisis. 

2. Evolution of the problems that intensify social exclusion

It is well known that the crisis has led to significant job losses and consequently unemployment rates have soared. However, unemployment does not always lead to situations of social exclusion. Its effects may be countered by family support and public protection mechanisms (Pérez-Eransus, 2010; Gallie and Paugam, 2000). For this reason, it is necessary to analyse the concentration of unemployment in households. From this perspective we can affirm, as observed in graph 1, that a serious increase has occurred in the number of households whose main breadwinner is unemployed and in total family unemployment, undoubtedly one of the harshest faces of exclusion from employment. 

These data largely explain the evident increase between the years 2007 and 2013 in exclusion from employment as observed in graph 2. However, reading of the graph also shows us an important increase in difficulties in housing and health. In fact, together with unemployment, these are the two spheres that have most clearly intensified the increase in social exclusion

In relation with health, a clear example is the increase in individuals and households that have ceased to buy medicines to follow treatments or diets due to financial problems. If, in the year 2007, some 5.6% of Spanish households were in this situation, by 2013 the sum had risen to 13.3%.

In contrast, social isolation has decreased and social unrest has not experienced any major deterioration. Although, as confirmed by Laparra and Pérez-Eransus (2012) among others, family networks have been showing symptoms of exhaustion with the prolonging of the crisis, it also seems clear that close supports and bonds have been reinforced as a survival strategy. Perhaps this face, that of social capital’s potential, is the least-known facet of the effects of the crisis.

3. Strong impact of social exclusion on the young population

Once the evolution of the fundamental core areas of social exclusion has been analysed, it is only natural to ask how this phenomenon affects different groups of people. Social exclusion shows a differential impact. Furthermore, the crisis has led to a change in the relationship of certain factors such as age and social exclusion.

Graph 3 explains the social exclusion rate for different age groups. Based on the observation that, in 2013, the lower the age, the higher the risk of living in social exclusion, we should reflect not only on the risk of loss of human capital represented by the concentration of social exclusion among the younger generations, but also on the consequences of the intergenerational transmission of exclusion. 

It should be pointed out that this situation is relatively new in the Spanish context: in the period prior to the crisis, social exclusion rates showed a very different distribution, with the percentage corresponding to people aged over 65 years being 20.2%, 4.4 points higher than that corresponding to the younger population.

During these years of crisis, the exclusion rate has doubled among young people while the elderly, mainly retired, are the people who have best stood the blows of the crisis. The impact of unemployment on people with short work histories, added to the cost of access to housing and the limitations of social protection against unemployment explain the increase in the figures among the younger population. 

Investment in education prevents the risk of experiencing situations of social exclusion.

Moreover, to understand the situation of the older population, we should point out that, in many cases, retirement pensions have been the saving grace for households and an element of evident protection in the face of the exclusion-causing effects of unemployment and precarity. This is combined with the widespread situation of paid own housing among elderly people which has undoubtedly been one element that has helped cushion against the social effects of the crisis. 

4. Investment in education to prevent the risk of social exclusion

The exclusion rate by education level shown in graph 4 transmits a clear idea: the investment in education represents a preventive factor against the risk of suffering situations of social exclusion. People with higher education levels show lower rates of social exclusion. 

Furthermore, the graph clearly evidences how the rates grow as educational level falls, data that reinforce the idea of education as a key element in upward social mobility, as analysed by authors such as Requena (2016).

Social exclusion is heavily weighted against the younger population. This implies an important risk of loss of human capital.

In the year 2007 it was also people with low education levels that had higher exclusion rates. However, due to the many limitations of our integration model, the onset of the crisis exacerbated the difficulties affecting vulnerable groups. Thus, situations of social exclusion had multiplied by 2.4 among the population with the lowest education levels.

5. Being a foreign citizen doubles the incidence of exclusion

Social exclusion rates among the foreign population are, undoubtedly, worrying, and are the consequence of an interaction of several factors: the Spanish integration model prior to the crisis was based on a labour market with demand for employment on the lower rungs of the occupational ladder. This was combined with facilities in access to universalist systems such as the health system, with the specific attention of social services and a fast process of family regroupings (Laparra and Zugasti, 2015). However, as pointed out by Izquierdo and León (2008), it was also an integration model with a high proportion of vulnerable immigrant people, hired temporarily in undervalued jobs. These posts were the first to be destroyed. 

Being a foreign citizen doubles the incidence of exclusion. The model of integration through employment has demonstrated its limitations.

The crisis and its consequences have thrown into question advances with regard to integration achieved in previous years by the foreign population. This is reflected in graph 5, which shows the incidence of social exclusion by nationality. 

In 2013, some 52.7% of the foreign population were in a situation of social exclusion. This is over double that corresponding to the Spanish or EU-15 population, which stood at 22.4%. Furthermore, comparison between the surveys of 2007, 2009 and 2013 indicates that the figure corresponding to the foreign population has multiplied by 2.5, while that corresponding to the rest of the population has multiplied by 1.4. 

6. Special vulnerability in single-parent households and those with children

Lastly we present an analysis of the differential impact of the crisis by type of household: maintained by women, maintained by men, single-parent and with children. We have included in graph 6 information relating to the evolution of the exclusion rates in each of these situations.

It is necessary to point out that at the individual level, the data reflect a reduction in differences between men and women in exclusion rates. Thus, in the year 2007, some 16.8% of women were suffering exclusion, a figure 1.2 points higher than that of men. In contrast, in the year 2013, the exclusion rate for women stood at 25.2%, a figure similar to that of men (25%). These data could indicate that the crisis has had a greater impact on the male population; but if we observe graph 6, we will see that the households that are headed by women show, over the course of the period analysed, higher social exclusion rates than those registered in households headed by men. In other words, households headed by women must tackle a higher risk of experiencing situations of exclusion.

Single-parent households and those with children experience situations of special vulnerability that may lead to social exclusion.

Moreover, it is important to highlight the situation of single-parent households, mostly headed by women, and those of households with children. These household types present social exclusion rates very much higher than the mean average for Spanish households: 8.1 points higher than the average for single-parent households and 10.3 points higher than the average for households with children. In addition, the worsening situation of single-parent households is greatest among all types of households analysed.

7. Conclusions

The analysis undertaken covers the evolution of social exclusion in Spain between 2007 and 2013, and reflects the important risk of social breakdown which we face as a consequence of a crisis that has not only increased the numbers of people experiencing situations of social exclusion and severe social exclusion, but has also had a differential impact on our society. Firstly, the number of people in different situations of social exclusion has increased from 7.3 million in 2007 to 11.7 million in 2013. Secondly, it has made collectives that started out from a situation of disadvantage more vulnerable: the foreign population or people with a low education level. Although the greater impact of social exclusion in these groups is not a new question, nor one that stems from the crisis, today the relationship is closer than ever.

In parallel, the generation gap has increased. Social exclusion among younger people has grown to a greater extent than among other age groups. Furthermore, the difficulties that must be faced by single-parent households and households with children, among others, have become apparent.

Beyond the debate on the way out of the crisis, a reflection is necessary on the transfer of economic growth to the more vulnerable groups as a fundamental element for favouring social cohesion. Investing in this field is undoubtedly a question of social justice. Those that are worst off should be the first to be attended to. The intensity of the changes requires a suitable response through social policies that places the emphasis on the inequalities that have been generated. 

Nerea Zugasti, Lecturer at the Department of Social Work  

Public University of Navarra

8. References

Gallie, D., and S. Paugam (2000): Welfare regimes and the experience of unemployment in Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Izquierdo, A., and S. León (2008): “La inmigración hacia dentro: argumentos sobre la necesidad de coordinación de las políticas de inmigración en un Estado multinivel”, Política y Sociedad, 45(1).

Laparra, M. (coord.) (2014): “La fractura social se ensancha: la intensificación de los procesos de exclusión en España durante 7 años”, in F. Lorenzo Gilsanz (ed.): VII Informe sobre exclusión y desarrollo social en España, Madrid: Fundación FOESSA.

Laparra, M., and B. Pérez-Eransus (eds.) (2012): Crisis and social fracture in Europe: causes and effects in Spain, Barcelona: Obra Social “la Caixa”.

Laparra, M., and N. Zugasti (2015): “La integración social de la población inmigrante: luces y sombras del modelo español”, in C. Torres Albero (ed.): España 2015: situación social, Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas.

Lorenzo Gilsanz, F. (ed.) (2014): VII Informe sobre exclusión y desarrollo social en España, Madrid: Fundación FOESSA.

Pérez-Eransus, B. (2010): “Articulación de los procesos de pobreza económica y exclusión social tras la crisis”, in M. Laparra and B. Pérez-Eransus (eds.): El primer impacto de la crisis en la cohesión social en España, Madrid: Fundación FOESSA.

Requena, M. (2016): “The Social Elevator. To what degree does education improve social mobility?”, Social Observatory of “la Caixa”.

Rodríguez Cabrero, G., M. Pérez-Yruela and M. Trujillo (2004): Pobreza y exclusión social en el principado de Asturias, Madrid: Politeya.

Sanzo, L. (2009): 25 años de estudio de la pobreza en Euskadi (1984-2008), Vitoria-Gasteiz: Servicio Central de Publicaciones del Gobierno Vasco.



Nerea Zugasti, Lecturer at the Department of Social Work of the Public University of Navarra



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