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An overview of poverty and inequality in South Africa - Working Paper prepared for DFID (SA)

2. Perceptions of Poverty in South Africa

In 1997 a Participatory Poverty Assessment (PPA) was undertaken in South Africa (May, 1998). The poor characterised their poverty as:
  • Alienation from kinship and the community: The elderly without care from younger family members were seen as ‘poor’, even if they had an old-age state pension (which provided an income which is relatively high by local standards). Similarly, young single mothers without the support of older kin or the fathers of their children were perceived to be ‘poor’.

  • Food insecurity: Households where children went hungry or were malnourished were seen as living in poverty.

  • Crowded homes: The poor were perceived to live in overcrowded conditions and in homes in need of maintenance.

  • Use of basic forms of energy: The poor were regarded as lacking safe and efficient sources of energy. In rural communities, the poor - particularly women - walk long distances to gather firewood.

  • A lack of adequate paid, secure jobs: The poor perceived lack of employment opportunities, low wages and lack of job security as major contributing factors to their poverty.

  • Fragmentation of the family: Many poor households were characterised by absent fathers or children living apart from their parents. Households may be split over a number of sites as a survival strategy.
Poverty is multi-faceted. It can be linked with hunger, unemployment, exploitation, and lack of access to clean water, sanitation, health-care or schools. It can be about vulnerability to crisis and homelessness. While clearly many of these issues are related to not having enough money, it is simplistic to ignore the non-material aspects of the experience of poverty. The poor are not concerned exclusively with adequate incomes and consumption. Achieving other goals such as security, independence and self-respect may be just as important as having the means to buy basic goods and services. Nevertheless, money-metric measures of welfare (such as income or expenditure) “probably provide the best objective proxy for poverty status” (Baulch, 1996).3

  1. At the same time, one needs to be wary of relying solely on the money-metric approach. For example, Klasen (2000) compares a standard expenditure-based poverty measure with a specifically created composite measure of deprivation. While there is a strong overall correlation between expenditures and levels of deprivation, the correlation is much weaker among the worst-off South Africans. In general, the deprivation measure finds more Africans, rural dwellers, members of de facto female-headed households, and members of smaller households deprived than expenditure poor.
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