FACTSHEET: South Africa’s official poverty numbers

What proportion of South Africans live in poverty? How are the numbers calculated? And who is most vulnerable? This factsheet presents South Africa’s official poverty estimates.

South Africa has three poverty lines, which represent different degrees of poverty. They were first published by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) in 2012.

The poverty lines were based on spending and consumption data from the 2000 Income and Expenditure Survey. Stats SA’s first poverty trends report was released in 2014.

In 2015, the poverty lines were rebased – this means that the poverty lines were recalculated using new data from the 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey. The latest poverty trends report was released in 2017 and include poverty estimates for 2006 to 2015.

Different degrees of poverty

South Africa’s poverty lines measure absolute poverty. The poverty lines are official thresholds below which people are considered poor.

South Africa has three poverty lines which “capture different degrees of poverty and allow the country to measure and monitor poverty at different levels”, according to Stats SA.

Stats SA uses data on how much people spend – as opposed to how much they earn – to calculate the number of people living in poverty. This is because it may “better reflect a household’s actual standard of living and ability to meet basic needs”, the organisation previously told Africa Check.

Poverty lines can appear arbitrary. For example, in 2015 a person spending R991 per month was considered to be living in poverty while another spending R993 was not. But academics argue that a line has to be draw somewhere if the extent of poverty is to be measured and tracked.

  • Food poverty line

This poverty line represents the amount of money that a person needs every month to purchase enough food to consume around 2,100 calories per day.

Stats SA uses the figure of 2,100 calories per day as it is the United Nations threshold for the minimum daily energy requirement for someone living in an emergency situation.

People living below this poverty line are considered to live in “extreme poverty”, as they are not able to afford to eat enough food to meet their basic physical needs.

2015 food poverty line statistics
Value of poverty line R441
Proportion of population below poverty line 25.2%
Number of people below poverty line 13.8 million

In 2017, the food poverty line was adjusted up to R531 per month.

  • Upper and lower-bound poverty lines

The upper-bound poverty line (UBPL) and lower-bound poverty line (LBPL) take into consideration the cost of basic food as well as the cost of other basic living needs. This includes costs related to shelter, clothing and transportation.

While it is possible to set a minimum requirement for daily food consumption, Stats SA notes that there “are no universal standards for consumption of non-food basic needs”.

Because of this, the “two lines are regarded as the lower and an upper bound to a range of possible ‘total’ poverty lines”. The lower line includes less basic living costs, while the upper line includes more.

According to Stats SA, “the lower-bound poverty line has emerged as the preferred threshold” in policy-making and monitoring.

South Africa’s poverty reduction targets are based on the lower-bound poverty line in the Medium Term Strategic Framework, National Development Plan and Sustainable Development Goals.

2015 lower-bound poverty line statistics
Value of poverty line R647
Proportion of population below LBPL poverty line 40%
Number of people below poverty line 21.9 million

In 2017, the lower-bound poverty line was adjusted up to R758 per month.

2015 upper-bound poverty line statistics
Value of poverty line R992
Proportion of population below LBPL poverty line 55.5%
Number of people below poverty line 30.4 million

In 2017, the upper-bound poverty line was adjusted up to R1,138 per month.

Who is most vulnerable to poverty in South Africa?

In 2015, over half of South Africa’s population (55.5%) lives in poverty. However, there are certain groups which are more vulnerable to poverty.

  • Eastern Cape

Over half of South Africans live below the upper-bound poverty line, but the figure varies by province.

The Eastern Cape had the highest share of poor residents at 72.9%. Limpopo was marginally lower at 72.4%.

Gauteng province had the lowest share of poor residents. In 2015, 33.3% of people who lived there were poor.

The percentage of people living in poverty increased in 8 provinces between 2011 and 2015. Mpumalanga is the only province that has seen a constant decline in the proportion of poor residents since 2006.

  • Women

A higher percentage of women have lived in poverty than men since 2006. However, the difference between the two groups has narrowed.

  • Black people

According to Stats SA, there is “significant disparity in poverty levels between population groups in South Africa”. In 2015, 9 out of every 10 poor people in South Africa (93%) were black.

  • Children

The data shows that poverty is highest for the age group 0-17.

In 2015, 66.8% of children lived in poverty – up from 63.7% in 2011. The age group with the lowest levels of poverty were people aged 45-54, at 42.2%.

  • People with no education

“There is an undeniable relationship between poverty and education,” according to Stats SA.

“Studies have shown that the higher a person’s qualification, the more likely they are to be employed and absorbed in the formal labour force, and therefore, are less susceptible to falling into poverty.”

In 2015, 79.2% of South African adults with no education lived in poverty.

In comparison, 35.6% of adults with only a matric qualification live in poverty. The figure was just 8.4% for adults with a higher education.


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