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EACEA National Policies Platform


4. Social Inclusion

4.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023

Main challenges to social inclusion

In most Flemish policy areas, the following groups are referred to in the context of policies on social inclusion:

  1. Persons living in poverty
  2. Low-skilled people
  3. People of non-Belgian origin
  4. People with functional limitations (long-term illness, handicap, ...)

Below we give an outline of these groups and a current state of affairs concerning social exclusion within the relevant policy areas. We focus in particular on young people and also describe a number of social changes that entail additional challenges.

Before starting this outline, we would like to place one nuance. Although we discuss below all risk groups separately, all studies and data show that these vulnerabilities cannot can be considered separately and that they often co-occur and mutually reinforce each other.

People living in poverty

Following the Europe 2020 Strategy, poverty in Flanders is measured based on three indicators:

  1. Relative risk of poverty

The relative poverty risk measures the percentage of the population living in a household with a household income below the poverty threshold (60% of equivalent median disposable income).

  1. A very low work intensity

A very low work intensity (population 0-59 years) occurs when adults (aged 18 to 59, excluding students) have worked on average less than one fifth of the time during the reference year.

  1. Severe material deprivation

Severe material deprivation means that someone lives in a family that cannot afford at least four items from a list of nine (afford to pay rent or utility bills, to keep their home adequately warm, to face unexpected expenses, to eat meat, fish or a protein equivalent every second day, to go on a one-week holiday away from home, to have a car, a washing machine, a colour TV or a telephone).

A person is considered poor or socially excluded when he meets one of these three conditions. Measured on the basis of this composite indicator EU2020, 13.2% of the Flemish population lived in families at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2019 (EU-SILC Statbel, adapted by Statistiek Vlaanderen, Statistics Flanders, 2020). Flanders scores very well in comparison with other European regions and scores also significantly better than the Walloon Region (24.6% of the population lives in families at risk of poverty or social exclusion) and the Brussels-Capital Region (37.8%).

In addition, it is also relevant to look at the individual indicators:

  • 9.8% of the people in the Flemish region in 2019 live in households with an income below the Belgian poverty threshold. In recent years, the proportion of people below the poverty risk threshold remained stable; limited fluctuations are not statistically significant (Statistics Flanders, 2020).
  • 7.4% of the Flemish people live in households with a very low work intensity. The share of people living in households with very low work intensity decreased significantly between 2016 and 2019 (Statistics Flanders, 2020).
  • 1.9% of the Flemish people live in severe material deprivation family. Since 2004, the share of severely deprived people has fluctuated between 2% and 3% of the Flemish population (Statistics Flanders, 2020).
  • It is, however, important to note that the SILC survey was thoroughly reformed in 2019. As a result of these changes, comparisons with the results of previous years should be made with caution.

For each of these three indicators, the proportions are significantly lower in the Flemish region than in the Walloon and the Brussels-Capital-Region.

The at-risk-of-poverty rate used to be higher among elderly people, but the gap with the other age groups has declined sharply since 2006.  In the age groups 0 to 15 year 14% lives in a family at risk of poverty in 2019 and in the age group 16 to 24 year 16% lives in an at-risk family. The at-risk rate among people aged 65 or older is 13% (Statistics Flanders, 2020).  

Poverty is in Flanders closely related to the other indicators of deprivation and social exclusion. For example, the risk of poverty rate is significantly higher among single-person (22%) and single-parent (35%) households, unemployed people (65%), lower-skilled persons (24%) and people born outside of Belgium, both people born in the EU (23%) and people born outside the EU (34%) (Statistics Flanders, 2020).  

The fight against poverty is a top priority for the Flemish Government. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Flemish Government has devised a new Flemish Action Plan for Poverty Reduction 2020-2024 (Vlaams Actieplan Armoedebestrijding 2020-2024, 2020). The main policy measures in this plan are: preventing and combatting under-protection in order to avoid people ending up in poverty and social exclusion; launching targeted actions against child poverty; a focus on activation, empowering people and increasing self-reliance; supporting citizens in sudden changes in their lives so that the risk of ending up in poverty is limited; and committing to a quality, liveable and healthy environment for everyone.

Youth Unemployment

Financial difficulties are often at the same time cause and consequence of deprivation in terms of i.a. employment, education, housing, health and social participation. In this regard, special attention is paid to youth unemployment. The EU Member States are facing up to this day still the negative impact of the prolonged economic and financial crisis. Young people are particularly hit by this precarious situation (Schepers & Nicaise, 2014).

In Flanders, the youth unemployment rate is considerably lower than the European average, but also in Flanders this rate is strongly sensitive to economic circumstances. The difficult first labour market entry is one of the main reasons for this cyclicality of youth unemployment (Schepers & Nicaise, 2014). Young people are more than other age groups temporarily recruited. The high proportion of temporary contracts and the limited seniority makes it easier and cheaper to fire young people.

As a result of the crisis, the annual mean youth unemployment rate increased from 15.8% in 2012 to 17.7% in 2013 (VDAB Arvastat, 2020). After 2013 the unemployment rate lowers again. In 2019, thanks to the improving economy, the generation change (exit of the baby boom generation) and the later labour market entry of young people, the Flemish youth unemployment was returning to the very low level of 2008 (13.2%) (VDAB Arvastat, 2020). In 2020, the unemployment rate of young people has increased again to 14.3%, for which the COVID-19 pandemic seems like a logical explanation. It remains to be seen what the long-term impact will be.

In any case, youth unemployment remains strongly linked to education and ethnical background. Unqualified young people and young people with a migration background have significantly higher unemployment rates (VDAB Arvastat, 2020).

Low-skilled and growing inequalities in education

Among adults it is invariably found that lower-skilled people face multiple problems. Problems of social exclusion on the basis of education do already appear among young people, even during their school career. To specify this exclusion on the basis of the educational career, it is important to reflect briefly upon a number of educational issues.

According to the EU framework an early school leaver (ELET) is defined as an 18- to 24-year-old who has a maximum qualification of lower secondary education and who no longer is in education or training. The EU2020 strategy of the European Union wants to decrease the proportion of early school leavers below 10% by 2020. Flanders had already achieved this goal at the start of the strategy. The target of the Flemish Pact 2020 is thus to halve the group of early school leavers in 2008 (8.6%) by 2020 (4.25%) (Vlaamse Overheid, 2020). The latest data show that the amount of early school leavers in 2018 was still 7.3%. The Department of Education and Training of the Flemish Government, however, uses a more stringent definition in which young people who have completed compulsory education but left secondary education without adequate qualifications are considered as early school leavers. In 2008 the percentage of early school leavers as defined by the Flemish Department of Education and Training was 14%, in 2017-2018 that percentage was dropped to 11.9% (Vlaamse Overheid, 2020).

Early school leaving is amongst others linked to unemployment, poverty and poor health. Because early school leaving is associated with social exclusion, it is also important to focus on those factors which are known to be good predictors of early school leaving. Falling behind in school is such a characteristic. It indicates the number of years of delay that a pupil has accumulated compared to the year that he/she would stand if he/she would have followed a normal school path. In the second year of the third stage of secondary education (for the majority of the pupils the final year in secondary education), almost one in ten (9.2%) lays at least two years behind in school. There are considerably more boys than girls falling behind (VRIND, 2017) and more young people of non-Belgian than of Belgian origin. In addition, the chance that a pupil has fallen behind is strongly related to the educational track one follows. The proportion of pupils that have fallen behind is the highest in vocational secondary education (BSO) and the lowest in general secondary education (ASO). Pupils in technical (TSO) and artistic secondary education (KSO) take a middle position.

In sum, Flanders is doing generally well in terms of these indicators and achieves also good average scores in international performance studies (e.g. PISA, TIMSS). However, Flanders faces also huge social inequalities in education. In Flanders educational mobility is relatively low. The children of parents with a low level of education often end up in the vocational track of secondary education and do not pursue higher education. While among young people with a lower educated mother 42% starts in higher education, no less than 83% of the young people with a higher educated mother initiate higher studies (VRIND, 2017).

In addition, the Flemish education is strongly segregated and this in regard with several risk factors (Keppens & Siongers, 2014). Segregation on the basis of ethnic origin, social background and special needs are the most important. The spread of ethnic minority pupils and pupils with social disadvantaged backgrounds over schools is very uneven in Flanders. Compared with other Western countries, socioeconomic and ethnic school segregation is high in Flanders (Agirdag, Nouwen, Mahieu et al., 2012; Jacobs, Rea, Teney et al., 2009). This high level of school segregation is related to the specific educational policy of free parental choice. This freedom of school choice allows parents to choose or avoid schools with a certain composition. A lot of middleclass parents tend to avoid schools with a high share of working-class and/or immigrant pupils (Agirdag & Van Houtte, 2011).

In comparison with other European regions, The Flemish region had always a relatively large number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN). Flanders chose more than other regions and countries for a solution in separate schools. So, also with regard to special needs pupils, the Flemish school system is strongly segregated. The parliamentary act on pupils with specific educational needs (M-decreet, see 4.2.1) which became fully operational in September 2015 wanted to counteract this segregation. Since the introduction of the M-decree on 1 September 2015, the number of pupils in special secondary education remained however quite stable: in 2017-2018 4.6% of the pupils in secondary education are enrolled in special education; this is the same number as in 2012-2013. On the other hand, the percentage of pupils with an official decision of SEN in inclusive school settings remains one of the lowest in Europe (Ramberg, Lénárt & Watkins, 2018).

People of non-Belgian origin

Like other European regions, Flanders is facing a growing degree of ethnic diversity. In 2020 the percentage of people with a foreign nationality was 9.3% (Statistics Flanders, 2020). Over the past 25 years, the proportion of foreigners has risen almost continuously in the Flemish region and in recent years this increase was quite strong (VRIND, 2017). In 2009 about 15.3% of the inhabitants of the Flemish Region was of foreign origin; in 2018 this had risen to 21.9% (Agentschap voor Binnenlands Bestuur & Statistiek Vlaanderen, 2020). However, Flanders has in comparison with other European countries (with the exception of Luxembourg), a higher proportion of EU citizens under its foreign population. Compared to the Brussels and Walloon region in Belgium the share of inhabitants with foreign roots is also rather low.

Among young people, this percentage is considerably higher. In the youngest age group (0 to 5 years) 38.6% is of foreign origin and in the age group 6 to 11 years 36.2% is of foreign origin. In urban and metropolitan regions, this percentage is substantially higher. In 2018 respectively 50.4% and 35.5% of the inhabitants of Antwerp were of non-Belgian and of non-EU origin (Agentschap voor Binnenlands Bestuur & Statistiek Vlaanderen, 2020). This increasing diversity represents one of the major social challenges for Flemish youth policy.

The above numbers do not take account asylum seekers and persons who reside illegally in Belgium/Flanders. In 2020, the Immigration Office registered 13105 first applications for international protection. In 2020, the CGRS (Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons) took 14272 decisions concerning 17384 persons who applied for asylum (CGRS, 2020). From 2015 to 2018, the protection rate had more or less remained stable around 50% (with a peak of 57.7 % in 2016). In 2019 and 2020, however, the protection rate has gone down to 36.9% and 34.1%. So in In 2020, the CGRS considered in 34.1% of its final decisions that the applicant was indeed in need of protection. There are no Flemish data available on refugees and asylum seekers.

A particular focus is currently on the spectacular rising number of unaccompanied minor youth among the refugees and asylum seekers. Minors made up 31% of the applicants for international protection in 2018 in Belgium. The share of assisted and unaccompanied minors fluctuated slightly over the past ten years (between 21% and 28% for accompanied minors and between 3% and 7% for UMs) (Myria, 2019). Separate numbers for the Flemish region are not available.

Not only does the proportion of inhabitants of foreign origin increases, also the diversity among the "foreign people" increases. Indeed, we can hardly speak of ‘the’ foreigner today. The traditional dichotomy between 'natives' and 'foreigners', which was dominant during the past decades does less justice to the current complex reality characterized by a strong variety of ethnic and national origins (Cops, Pleysier, Put & De Boeck, 2015).

Administrative data and research (e.g. data from the Youth Research Platform and the Knowledge Centre on Cultural and Media Participation, the Flemish poverty monitor, ...)  show that young people of non-Belgian origin are socially deprived in various domains. Young people of non-Belgian origin have, for example, a much higher probability of leaving education without qualifications, of having higher truancy rates etc. In addition, recent research indicates that young people of non-Western origin significantly less attend cultural performances, engage less in cultural activities and participate less in socio-cultural associations, including youth work (Elchardus & Smits, 2012; Lievens, Siongers & Beunen, 2015; Van der Eecken, Kemper, Derluyn & Bradt, 2015).

Therefore, in recent policy documents (legislative terms 2014-2019 and 2019-2024), a lot of attention is paid to the challenges of this growing diversity in terms of participation in society and to social inclusion. The Flemish Minister for Youth, Benjamin Dalle, also stresses the importance of diversity in youth work in his policy note for 2019-2024, stating that youth work is a right for all youn people and that extra attention will be given to the increased diveristy among the current generation of children, including those with a ethnic cultural background but also other socially vulnerable groups (Vlaams Parlement, 2019).

People with disabilities

To date, there exist only limited statistics on the number of persons with disabilities in Flanders. Nor are there any concrete data on people with disabilities divided by type of disability (Intellectual, visual, auditive, physical or mental). Many researchers use different sources on which they base their estimates and consequently arrive at different figures and numbers. One of the reasons is the use of different definitions to describe this group. An oftenused definition is the one used by the VAPH (Vlaams Agentschap voor Personen met een Handicap) which defines a handicap as “any long-term and significant participation problem experienced by a person and attributable to a combination of functional disorders of a mental, psychic, physical or sensory nature, limitations in the performance of activities, and personal and external factors”.

It is even more difficult to obtain exact figures on the number of children with disabilities in Flanders. Again, much depends on the definition used, source or applied parameter (Schraepen, Maelstaf & Halsberghe, 2016). In the school year 2019-2020, respectively 25.567 and 21.095 pupils attended school in special primary and secondary education (Vlaamse Overheid, 2020). However not all children and young people with a disability attend special education institutions, and not all children in special education have a disability that effects their participation in social live. In the Belgian Health Interview Survey of 2018, 6.1% of the 15-24 year olds in Flanders reported that they have health-related activity limitations (Global Activity Limitation Indicator). In 2020 respectively 4.9% of the young people below 25 years old and 13.7% of the people aged 25 to 34 in Belgium were entitled to an income replacement and / or integration allowance because of a disability (Federale Overheidsdienst, 2020).

More information on the effects of living with disabilities can be found. For instance, research indicates that persons with disabilities are in comparison with people without disabilities less educated (45% vs. 29%) and are often in the lowest income quintile in Flanders (27% versus 18%) (VRIND, 2017). Also, in terms of social participation, people with disabilities are less active than people without disabilities. They participate less in culture, sport less and are less often an active member of a voluntary association. Internet use is also significantly lower in this group, and the same applies for the number of social contacts with neighbours and/or family (Moons, Pauwels & Noppe, 2014; VRIND, 2017). Finally, also their participation rate in political life is a lot lower when compared to people without disabilities. This lower participation rate in socio-economic and socio-cultural life is partly due to the fact that the share of persons with disabilities is higher among the oldest age groups. However, even after taking into account age differences, the participation of people with disabilities remains significantly lower (Moons, Pauwels & Noppe, 2014; VRIND, 2017).


Statistical data shows that young people in poverty, less educated youth and handicapped and disabled young people find harder their way to youth work or other forms of participation. One of the major challenges to social inclusion of young people, therefore, is to make youth work and other participation opportunities more accessible to disadvantaged young people and young people of foreign origin. A similar challenge is found in the policy for culture that is deployed on the participation in broader associations. Many of these groups are also concentrated in the metropolitan areas. The (big) city can be seen in this sense as the 'laboratory' of society, in which many social trends and developments occur first or more intensively (also the gap between rich and poor is larger in metropolitan areas).


Main concepts

Flanders has no singular or unifying definition of social inclusion.

In Flanders, social inclusion is often associated with the term social vulnerability. Socially vulnerable is the person or population group who in its contacts with the social institutions (including schools, employment, justice, etc.) especially and repeatedly is confronted with the negative aspects and who less benefits from the positive services. In Flanders, the term 'social vulnerability' is based on the theory of social vulnerability as developed by youth criminologist Nicole Vettenburg and her colleagues (e.g. Vettenburg, Walgrave & Van Kerckvoorde, 1984; Vettenburg, 1988). "Social vulnerability" refers here to the fact that some young people are more than other "hurt" by the public services and institutions. While social services and institutions give their peers access to information, education, support and/or assistance, vulnerable youth are repeatedly confronted with normative, sanctioning and monitoring mechanisms in social institutions.

In general, policy documents on social inclusion or exclusion refer to certain groups that are defined as groups who are at risk for social exclusion. The definition of such vulnerable groups can vary over policy domains, but in general the following groups are considered to have a high risk on social exclusion:

  • Young people who live in poverty
  • Young people with no or limited educational qualifications
  • Young people coming from lower cultural backgrounds (e.g. with lower educated parents)
  • Young people with functional disabilities: poor health, long term illness, physical disabilities, …
  • Young people with a foreign origin

Within equal opportunities policy, also the following groups are considered to be at risk:

  • Girls / Women
  • LGBTQI+ people