The Measurement of Poverty in South Africa Project: Key issues

Type Report
Title The Measurement of Poverty in South Africa Project: Key issues
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2007
‘Society means a shared life. If some and not others are poor, then the principles on which life is
shared are at issue: society itself is in question.’ (Halsey, 1985: xxiii).
Poverty is a contested concept; and it is contested with good reason. Arguments over how
poverty should be conceptualised, defined and measured go beyond semantics and academic
hair-splitting. The conceptualisation, definition and measurement of poverty in a society is like a
mirror-image of the ideals of that society: in conceptualising, defining and measuring 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 the concepts, definitions and measurements of poverty, as well as
being theoretically robust, are appropriate to the society in which they are applied.
Poverty is also political because it relates to the allocation or distribution of resources, and
reflects the impact of past and present policy choices (Meth, 2006). The ways in which politicians,
citizens and experts use the concept of poverty have very divergent and diverse roots in social,
political and philosophical discourses. Present day poverty discourse draws on complex and
sometimes contradictory underlying assumptions about what people are supposed to need in
order to live a minimally human life; about the obligations between individuals and society, about
the relation between have and lack, ill-being, well-being and suffering; and about social life and
individual agency. These underlying discourses and narratives are not neatly aligned — and this
means that the concept of poverty as it exists in ordinary language has an inherent ‘messiness’
about it. It can (and is) often used in divergent ways, to highlight different phenomena, and to
serve a wide range of purposes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, its protean breadth
and inner diversity is part of what makes the concept of poverty so important and powerful in the
debates by which government, social arrangements, institutions and policies are legitimised. It
allows the concept to be used in very nuanced, complex and responsive ways (du Toit 2005).
Given this ’messiness’, it is not possible to refer to any single ‘scientific’ understanding of poverty
(Alcock, 1993, quoted in Magasela, 2005a).
Enquiry into levels of poverty amongst South Africans is not new. Levels of poverty amongst the
white population formed the basis of the first Carnegie Commission Inquiry into Poverty during
the Great Depression in an attempt by the government to address the “poor white problem” in
1928 (Magasela, 2005). In the early 1980’s, as a result of concerns by progressive forces within
the country about growing levels of poverty amongst the population as a whole, the Second
Carnegie Commission Inquiry1
into Poverty in South Africa was held, and this was followed by the
1993 “Project for Statistics on Living Standards and Development” undertaken by the World Bank
and South African researchers for the African National Congress who wanted a definitive
assessment of the extent of poverty within the country prior to taking office (Magasela, 2005).
This work built on a strong tradition of documentation, research and analysis into income levels
and causes of poverty by researchers such as Simkins and McGrath and Pillay, and research
units including the Economic Research Unit at the former University of Natal, and other research
initiatives such as the project into the gap between white and black incomes funded by the Anglo
American Chairman’s Fund.

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