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Conceptualising, defining and measuring poverty in South Africa: an argument for a consensual approach

Michael Noble, Andrew Ratcliffe, Gemma Wright

Centre for the Analysis of South African Social Policy

Posted with permission of the Centre for the Analysis of South African Social Policy (
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This paper argues for a rigorous distinction between the conceptualisation, definition and measurement of poverty in South Africa. Conceptual frameworks and definitions of poverty are briefly reviewed in both the international and South African contexts. Whilst acknowledging the immediate need for a concept and definition of poverty which addresses basic human needs in line with the Copenhagen Declaration of 1995, this paper argues that there is also a need for a parallel definition which is based on a conceptualisation of relative poverty. It is argued that the most appropriate definition of poverty which is consistent with democratic South Africa and the transformation agenda is based on a consensual approach – relative poverty defined by reference to socially perceived necessities in terms of activities, possessions and access to services. The paper discusses the difficulties of such an approach but concludes that such an approach will address long-term goals of an inclusive, unified, multi-cultural society.


“Endemic and widespread poverty continues to disfigure the face of our country. It will always be impossible for us to say that we have fully restored the dignity of all our people as long as this situation persists. For this reason the struggle to eradicate poverty has been and will continue to be a central part of the national effort to build the new South Africa”
(Mbeki, 2004).

It is currently ten years since the end of apartheid in South Africa. Politicians are taking stock of progress made so far, and are formulating goals for the next ten years. As can be seen from President Thabo Mbeki’s 2004 Inauguration Address, tackling poverty remains at the forefront of the political agenda. To date, democratic South Africa has not adopted any official definitions of poverty. However, there is now much discussion within the Government’s Social Cluster about the need to establish a poverty line (or lines) against which progress towards the eradication of poverty can be measured. In particular, the Department of Social Development, the National Treasury and Statistics South Africa are leading the debate.

This paper argues that it is essential for that debate to be informed by clear theoretical considerations and that any poverty lines or definitions adopted as ‘official’ should be conceptually clear and appropriate for a new South Africa. If everyone agrees that there is a problem of poverty in South Africa, do we need to worry about how the problem is conceptualised, defined and measured? One of the few points of agreement in the international academic debate on poverty is that poverty is a contested concept; but it is contested with good reason. Arguments over how poverty should be conceptualised and defined go beyond semantics and academic hair-splitting. “Poverty is inherently a political concept- and thus inherently a contested one” (Alcock, 1993, p3) because “poverty is not just a state of affairs, it is an unacceptable state of affairs- it implicitly contains the question, what are we going to do about it?” (Alcock 1993, p3, Italics in original). The concept and definition of poverty in a society is like a mirror-image of the ideals of that society: in conceptualising and defining what is unacceptable in a society we are also saying a great deal about the way we would like things to be. It is therefore vital that a concept and definition of poverty, as well as being theoretically robust, is appropriate to the society in which it is to be applied. Having agreed on a definition or definitions, the method of measurement must appropriately operationalise the definition.

One of the problems in South Africa, and indeed in many other developing and developed countries, is the absence of clear distinctions between conceptualising, defining and measuring poverty1. How can we distinguish between them? By ‘concepts’, we follow Lister (forthcoming) and mean the general parameters out of which definitions are developed. These parameters are themselves informed by competing ideologies. ‘Definitions’ distinguish ‘the poor’ from the ‘non-poor’, within the framework of the concepts. ‘Measurements’ operationalise the ‘definition’. Table 1 illustrates these distinctions.

Table 1: Examples of Concepts, Definitions and Measurements of Poverty

Concept Definition Measurement
Absolute – an approach characterised by the absence of a reference group. Sometimes thought of as scientific and unchanging over time. Applies equally to any society.
  1. Rowntree Primary Poverty.

  2. Copenhagen Declaration Absolute Poverty.

  3. US Poverty Line (Orshansky, 1965).

  4. South Africa PDL or HSL (see examples in Woolard, (Woolard, 1997).
1) 3) 4) Budget standards approaches.
Relative – characterised by defining poverty
  1. in relation to living standards of a reference group; or

  2. in terms of resources required to participate fully in society; or

  3. more narrowly by reference to the national income/expenditure distribution.
  1. ‘Low cost but acceptable’ definitions (Parker, 1998); The Cost of A Child (Oldfield & Yu, 1993)

  2. Townsend Participation Index (Townsend, 1979); Lack of socially perceived (or consensually defined) necessities (Gordon et al., 2000; Mack & Lansley, 1985; Pantazis, Townsend, & Gordon, 1999); Proportional Deprivation Index (Hallerod, Bradshaw, & Holmes, 1997; Hallerod, 1994).

  3. Children living in households in the bottom deciles of the income/expenditure distribution; children living in households below 60% median equivalised household income (Bradbury & Jantti, 1999, May, 1998).
  1. Budget standards approach.

  2. Normative judgement (Townsend), survey of socially perceived necessities necessities (Gordon et al., 2000; Mack & Lansley, 1985; Pantazis, Townsend, & Gordon, 1999); Proportional Deprivation Index (Hallerod, Bradshaw, & Holmes, 1997; Hallerod, 1994).

  3. Income/expenditure Surveys.
Capabilities and Commodities – framing poverty in terms of human capacity. Poverty absolute in the space of capabilities and relative in the space of commodities or resources (Sen, 1983; Sen, 1985; Sen 1997; Sen, 1999).
  1. Capability list (Desai, 1995; Nussbaum, 2000).

  2. Basic needs approach (Doyal & Gough, 1991).
Social exclusion – widening poverty to encompass the capacity to function as a fully participating member of society (has close affinity with Townsend’s Relative Deprivation (Townsend, 1979)). Key elements of social exclusion are multiple deprivation, relativity, agency and dynamics (Atkinson & Hills 1998).
  1. Researcher judgement (Gordon et al., 2000).

  2. Consensual Definitions (Indicators of Poverty and Social Exclusion project, Noble et al, ongoing).
  1. Survey.

  2. Focus groups and survey.

This table is not exhaustive, nor are the concepts as neatly mutually exclusive as shown, but in our view an important key characteristic of an effective measurement of poverty is one which flows from a rigorous conceptualisation and definition of poverty. Not all do. So for example, measurement of poverty by reference to a country’s income or expenditure distribution has, in our view, only a weak conceptual underpinning.

Given the fact that a significant proportion of the population lack sufficient basic needs including food, housing, education, safety and health provision, there is no doubt that there is a need for a measurement of poverty (or poverty line) for South Africa based on an absolute concept and defined, perhaps, by reference to the Copenhagen Declaration (1995).

However, there is also a pressing need for a carefully thought out relative measure of poverty. In this paper we argue that a ‘consensual’ or ‘democratic’ definition of poverty in South Africa is the most appropriate approach to help the country overcome the deep social divisions that are apartheid’s legacy and become a more equal and unified society. This position is defended on two fronts: firstly, it will be argued that consensual definitions of poverty have a firmer theoretical basis than the alternatives; and secondly, that such definitions are appropriate in the South African context.

This paper begins with a section outlining the international debate around the concept of poverty, which will place consensual definitions in a theoretical context. This will be followed by a brief overview of the main approaches to the definition of poverty which have been applied to modern South Africa. The need for a consensual approach to poverty definition in South Africa will then be outlined before the paper ends with some closing remarks.

  1. We are indebted to Professor Ruth Lister for encouraging us to distinguish between concepts and definitions, as presented in her forthcoming book ‘Poverty’ to be published by Polity Press in October 2004.

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