Social cohesion: A complex challenge for diverse policy makers

Promoting social cohesion in Europe is a multifaceted task that cuts across several policy portfolios. In order to develop strategies for tackling this complex challenge, policy makers need to understand the relationship between several key socio-economic factors, such as employment, gender, education, welfare and urban planning.

Much of what we have learned about social cohesion in recent years has been generated by researchers from ten EU countries participating in a network of excellence known as EQUALSOC (Economic Change, Quality of Life and Social Cohesion), a project funded under the European Union’s 6th Framework Programme. The network consisted of thirteen partners from Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Reflecting the diverse nature of its subject, EQUALSOC was divided into six research groups, each with a different thematic focus:

  • Employment and the labour market.
  • Income distribution, consumption and income mobility.
  • Education, social mobility and social cohesion.
  • Family and social networks.
  • Social and cultural differentiation.
  • Trust, associations and legitimacy.

The network has focussed its policy recommendations in the following domains:

Reconciliation of elderly care and employment

Over six per cent of employed people in the EU are also busy caring for an adult person (usually an elderly relative). This creates significant strains on people’s ability to participate in the labour market, particularly for women. One way of reducing this double burden on individuals, and improving their ability to work, is by increasing the role of public policy and the public sector in meeting the caring needs of dependant people. Two ways of doing this are through entitlement to time in order to meet caring commitments, and through the provision of non-family care, which the researchers argue, “must be granted similarly to what happens in the case of small children”.

Parental separation and children’s well-being

The number of divorces per 1000 people in the EU-27 has doubled since the mid-1960s. Despite this bleak picture, it is, fortunately, possible to design policies that improve the quality of family life and parents’ partnerships, thus reducing dysfunction and minimising any negative effects on children within families that experience divorce. Positive examples include policies which prioritise financial and emotional support for vulnerable families, both before and after break-ups. There are long-term benefits in doing so, according to the research, because “family breakup can shape inequalities in children’s life chances and put pressures on welfare states built on the premise of stable families”.

Monitoring minimum income protection in Europe

Within the EU, there is wide acceptance that the state should provide a universal safety net by offering some form of minimum income protection to all its citizens. Yet these safety nets differ substantially, in terms of e.g. administrative structures and procedures, conditions for eligibility and entitlement, benefits levels and associated rights. Relative to the EU-poverty line (i.e. 60 per cent of equivalent median household income), only a handful of countries provide adequate minimum income protection. As a result, there are enormous differences in subsistence levels across EU Member States. In addition, relative to wages and living standards, minimum income protection generally exhibited a downward trend during the 1990s, a trend that was largely halted and in some countries partially reversed during the 2000s.

Important work remains to be done on this front, for two reasons. First, valid measures of minimum income protection are essential for the EU Open Method of Coordination process in the field of social exclusion to function as a process of cumulative ‘policy learning’. Second, we still need to advance our understanding of the variety and development of minimum income protection schemes across Europe and beyond, in order to assess where significant problems of poverty remain and to identify what is to be done. The authors offer five concrete suggestions on improvements essential for a more accurate monitoring of minimum income protection systems in Europe and for gauging their impact on poverty.

Social inequalities in educational attainment

Most European countries witnessed massive educational expansion during the 20th century. As a result, the educational achievements of European citizens increased significantly. However, the influence of students’ social backgrounds on their educational attainment remains significant. Such differences can be found in the educational performance of children of different social origins (‘primary effects’). A possible powerful policy approach to address differences in academic performance between social groups would be intensive investment in early-years education and child-development programmes.

EQUALSOC researchers conclude that the individual choices made and ambitions demonstrated by children and/or their parents ('secondary' effects) are an important force in creating inequalities in educational attainment, and help substantially to reproduce social background differences. This finding is stable across countries and over time. Eliminating secondary effects would require policies to encourage appropriately-qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue to higher levels of education.

Substantial reductions in inequalities could be obtained using relatively simple policy tools, for example the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which was introduced in England and Wales. In this scheme, children from low-income households are provided with financial incentives if they choose to take up post-compulsory educational courses, with bonuses for good performance. This relatively simple and inexpensive policy has great potential to reduce the size of secondary effects.

Research is just one part of the EQUALSOC network of excellence. Another important aspect of the project involves training. EQUALSOC has staged a variety of training activities to extend its impact and establish momentum in the European Research Area. These activities include summer schools, methodology workshops and student/researcher visitorships. Thus, during its five-year life span, the project has not only succeeded in deepening the pool of academic knowledge about social cohesion, it has also helped lay the groundwork for the next generation of comparative researchers to explore the topic on a pan-European scale.

EQUALSOC - Economic Change, Quality of Life and Social Cohesion (duration: 1/9/2005 – 31/12/2010) is a Network of Excellence funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://www.equalsoc.org/2

Contact: Robert Erikson, robert.erikson@sofi.su.se