Theoretical framework

Moving from deficit to advantaged thinking

No athlete turns up to the Olympics and expects to win the marathon just because they’ve made sure they haven’t broken their legs. It’s as though we deny the opportunity for certain groups of young adults to live an existence beyond the deficits they pose. We invest more in controlling the problem, than we do in empowering the person. An investment in prevention is only half an investment if it is not matched by preparation for a positive life and the progression opportunities to achieve it. 27

The welfare sector in Australia has, to date, typically focused on identifying the problems faced by young people at risk of or experiencing homelessness. In response, governments and service providers have developed a suite of policies and practices to address or manage these problems. These responses have usually been delivered through siloed portfolio areas or government departments (e.g., homelessness, child protection, juvenile justice, mental health).

Momentum is growing, however, among some policy makers, service providers and researchers for a paradigm shift in the way we think about and respond to young people experiencing disadvantage and exclusion. It is shift away from deficit, disadvantaged or problem-saturated thinking, towards advantaged thinking and acting. It is focused on identifying, developing and, most importantly, investing in the skills, capabilities and assets of these young people so that they can establish sustainable lives.  

A number of key ideas, theories and frameworks are driving this emerging paradigm shift. Many of these have broadly informed the Education First Youth Foyer Model developed by the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Hanover. These ideas also align with and underpin Hanover and the Brotherhood’s adaptation of the UK Foyer Federation’s Open Talent practice approach, which is employed in these EFY Foyers. 

Some of the key ideas and frameworks include:

  • inclusive growth
  • the capabilities approach
  • social capital (networks)
  • social citizenship.

These broad ideas, briefly outlined here, provide some of the theoretical underpinnings for the EFY Foyer Model and Practice Approach. Together they inspire a way of working with EFY Foyer students that recognises their:

  • vital role in social and economic life
  • individual capacity
  • access to opportunities and social networks that facilitate social and economic participation
  • rights, responsibilities and commitments to themselves and the wider community
  • sense of belonging
  • personal agency or capacity to make decisions on their own and others' behalfs.

Inclusive growth

In recent years, some economists and social policy experts have challenged the view that investment in socially-excluded populations is socially desirable but not economically productive. Proponents of an ‘inclusive growth’ approach argue that social inequality not only creates individual and social costs – thereby ‘breeding social resentment and political instability by stifling [some people’s economic] mobility’ – but, importantly, inequality ‘also [has] negative impacts on economic performance’.28 In short they argue that economic growth, social development and inclusion should go hand in hand. They claim that strong social foundations underpin a robust economy and promote individual wellbeing and economic growth. This, in turn, supports the social foundations of a society.29 Addressing inequality through policies, institutions and effective governance systems can result in a more efficient economy and pave the way for a society and its individual members to truly thrive.30

Engagement of people in productive employment is one of the key ways that the inclusive growth approach promotes both social equality and economic growth. This contrasts with economic approaches that promote growth through income redistribution. The inclusive growth approach seeks to mobilise and engage a large part of a country’s labour force, providing equal opportunity for people to access markets and resources.31 When applied to young people in EFY Foyers, an inclusive growth approach to economic development prioritises investment in building their capacity for social and economic participation. For these young people – who face both education and health barriers to participation – investment in targeted education, health and job creation infrastructure and programs is critical. An inclusive growth approach holds that engaging them in meaningful employment will not only promote economic productivity but will also benefit the young people themselves, as well as businesses needing job-ready labour.32 As such the young people living and studying in EFY Foyers represent our future workforce and community leaders. By investing in their abilities rather than supporting them to manage their problems we are investing in the future prosperity of the community as a whole.

This emphasis on recognition and investment in the development of people’s capabilities outlined in the inclusive growth approach is reinforced by the work of Amartya Sen, and later Martha Nussbaum. Highly influential, their work on capabilities has been taken up and used to inform the development of social policies and programs in Australia, Europe and the United States.

 It is focused on identifying, developing and investing in the skills, capabilities and assets of these young people... 


More than 20 years ago, philosopher Amartya Sen developed a philosophical approach relevant to social policy and programs that focuses on identifying and ‘valorising’ people’s fundamental capabilities. Put simply, it is an approach that focuses on what people can be, rather than on their limitations or problems.

Sen does not identify a pre-determined list of important capabilities. However, within his capabilities framework, the freedom to achieve wellbeing is a moral right and is understood in terms of people’s opportunities for doing and being what they have reason to value.33 In Sen’s words, capabilities are ‘the substantive freedoms [a person] enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value’.34

Martha Nussbaum subsequently critiqued and modified Sen’s approach to capabilities, and applauds Sen’s focus on people’s fundamental capabilities. In fact, unlike Sen, she developed a list of 10 ‘central capabilities’ with the proviso that the list should not be regarded as definitive or static.35 Nussbaum’s 10 ‘central human capabilities’ include: the capacity to live a normal life-span; bodily health; bodily integrity; being able to use the potential to senses; being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; practical reason; affiliation to others and having the social bases of non-humiliation and self-respect; living with other species; play; and control over political and material environments.36

Nussbaum emphasises that people’s actual capacity to express, show or realise these capabilities is affected by their life circumstances or context. For Nussbaum then, it is not good enough to focus on what people can be, on their potential.  We must also focus on what people can do, on the quality of life that they are actually able to achieve: ‘when comparing societies and assessing them for their basic decency or justice what is important is what each person is able to do, and to be’.37

Nussbaum analyses this quality of life in terms of functionings and capabilities. Functionings are states of being and doing (e.g., cycling as distinct from possessing a bicycle), while capabilities are a set of valuable functionings that a person has effective access to (cycling, with access to a bicycle). A person’s capability represents the effective freedom of an individual to choose between different functioning combinations – the effective freedom to choose between different kinds of life.38

Nussbaum argues, then, that the aim of public policy should be the promotion of capabilities and that this requires two kinds of efforts:

  1. the promotion of internal capabilities (say, by education or training)
  2. the making available of the external institutional and material conditions.39

For young people accessing EFY Foyers, Nussbaum’s approach underlines the importance of context in building or consolidating capability. Without effective access to opportunities and resources, these young people are effectively denied the freedom to develop their capabilities, including their capabilities for economic and social participation. Unlike their peers living in supportive and resourced home environments, they are denied the freedom to choose between different forms of life. The EFY Foyer Model recognises that students’ capacities for economic and social participation will be realised through investment in opportunities that enable them to develop.

The diverse literature on social capital provides some insight into some of the opportunities and resources that are critical to enabling young people to develop their capabilities.

Social capital

Social capital is a concept with many definitions, although its fundamental tenet is that social networks have value. Colin Falconer defines social capital simply as the resources provided to an individual through the social networks they hold.40 He notes that: ‘Social capital is widely perceived as a means to understand how we engage as citizens (Putnam 2000), how we secure economic gains (Sobel 2002), and how communities develop (Gittell & Vidal 1998)’.41

Three dimensions of social capital are commonly distinguished – bonding, bridging and linking. Bonding social capital involves trust and reciprocity in social networks within a community of people who are similar; bridging social capital refers to networks that are established across diverse communities, while linking social capital refers to connections between individuals and institutions of authority. All three are important for the construction of a civil society and individual health and wellbeing – bonding social capital for social support and solidarity, and bridging and linking for providing resources, opportunities and links to institutions and systems that aid ‘getting ahead’.42

To build sustainable livelihoods, disadvantaged young people need access to, or the opportunities to develop, all three forms of social capital – which the EFY Foyer Model provides. However, as the social citizenship literature points out, to build independent yet connected lives they also need to be recognised and recognise themselves as part of the community – of civil society – with rights and responsibilities to themselves and to others. Thus, disadvantaged young people also need to recognise themselves as capable of acting and participating on their own and others' behalfs.

Social citizenship

In his tracing of the development of the concept of national citizenship, T. H. Marshall divides citizenship into three elements – the civil, the social and the political. Civil citizenship comprises the rights necessary for individual freedom, such as freedom of speech, liberty of the person and the right to justice. The right to justice encompasses the right to exercise all your rights on equal terms with others. Political citizenship comprises the right to participate in political life though standing for office or as an elector. The social element of citizenship refers to ‘the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards of the society’.43

Social citizenship has been a developing and contested concept. More recently, in addition to being viewed as a matter of rights or status, citizenship has been understood as participation and practice44– the opportunity to ‘fulfill the potential of that status’.45

Social citizenship can be described as:

the vital ingredient that connects people to society and to the processes of government. It refers to an active relationship between persons, their communities and the state, balancing rights with obligations, plus the exploration of contexts that facilitate interconnection. 46

The approach links the inclusive growth approach at the macro level, with the capabilities approach at the micro level.

As Simon Biggs of the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the University of Melbourne notes:

… new forms of social citizenship emphasise the active agency of the person, as someone who has a hand in creating their own social circumstances and for whom participation and recognition are a precondition. The new social citizenship refers to the ways in which people access, maintain membership of and actively participate in society. It includes their cut of the pie, the quality and design of their environments, and the issues of personal identity. Thus social citizenship moves the debate beyond rights and responsibilities, important as that is, to embrace multiple contributions of all social actors whatever their circumstances. It moves us from instrumental relationships to a reconsideration of what positive social interconnection might mean.47

The EFY Foyer Model takes these ideas about social citizenship very seriously in structuring all aspects of its Practice Approach. As a result, those young people accessing EFY Foyers are recognised as valued social citizens who are able and expected to contribute to the development of their own lives as well as to the lives of others, including the broader community.

Open Talent

In an Australian context, the journey towards developing the EFY Foyer Model and Practice Approach involved the recognition of these key theories that currently influence social policy. The EFY Foyer Practice Framework distils these high-level theoretical approaches and utilises an Open Talent approach to embody them as key concepts. The OT approach, and its unique application in the EFY Foyer Model, will be explained in detail throughout this Framework.

It’s as though we deny the opportunity for certain groups of young adults to live an existence beyond the deficits they pose.