Frequently asked questions about poverty in South Africa

How is poverty measured in South Africa? How many poor people are there? And can it be measured differently? We answer three frequently asked questions about poverty in South Africa.

1. How is poverty measured in South Africa?

South Africa’s official national poverty lines were first published by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) in 2012.

There are three measures of poverty:

  • The food poverty line, also known as the extreme poverty line
  • The lower-bound poverty line
  • The upper-bound poverty line

The food poverty line is based on the daily calories a person needs to survive. The threshold Stats SA uses is 2,100 calories – the United Nations’ minimum daily consumption requirement in emergency situations.

The lower- and upper-bound poverty lines both include non-food items. But in the lower measure a person would need to “sacrifice food in order to obtain these”. At the upper poverty line, Stats SA says, people are able to “purchase both adequate food and non-food items”.

The amounts of money that set the poverty line thresholds are adjusted to keep up with changes in the cost of living.

The current thresholds are:

South Africa’s official national poverty lines (2018)
Poverty line Rand per person per month
Food poverty line R547
Lower-bound poverty line R785
Upper-bound poverty line R1,183

Source: Stats SA, National Poverty Lines (2018)

Poverty lines can seem arbitrary. For example, in 2018 a person living on R1,180 a month was considered to be living in poverty while another spending R1,190 was not.

But academics have argued that a line has to be drawn somewhere if the extent of poverty is to be measured and tracked.

2. How many poor people are there?

Stats SA’s Poverty Trends in South Africa report, released in August 2017, shows that a quarter of the population lived in extreme poverty in 2015. More than half the population (56%) was considered to be living in poverty as defined by the upper-bound poverty line.

The report says poverty levels declined from 2006 to 2011 but increased in 2015.

People living below the upper-bound poverty line (2006 – 2015)
2006 2009 2011 2015
Share of people living in poverty 67% 62% 53% 56%
Number of people living in poverty (million) 31.6 30.9 27.3 30.4

Source: Stats SA, Poverty Trends in SA

Note: Percentages have been rounded off.

According to the report, the people most vulnerable to poverty in South Africa include women, black people, minors and residents of the Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

3. Are there other ways of measuring poverty?

Isobel Frye, director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), says it is “crucial” for South Africa to move from poverty lines based on what is necessary to prevent death to a definition of poverty that considers what constitutes a decent standard of living.

The SPII and its partners have developed a Decent Standard of Living (DSL), based on 21 items research has shown to be essential for an acceptable standard of living. The items include access to mains electricity, a fridge and warm clothes.

The associated income level is R7,043 per person per month – close to six times the 2018 value of the upper-bound poverty line.

In 2015, the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town argued that the upper-bound poverty line of R779 (in 2011 prices) was too low.

“SALDRU used a different method to adjust for outliers [spending habits which appeared very different from the norm], and ended up with a poverty line of R1 042 per month, which we think is a more methodologically correct figure,” co-author Joshua Budlender told Africa Check at the time.

This package is part of a journalism partnership with South African newspaper City Press. The project aims to ensure that claims made by those in charge of state resources and delivering essential services are factually correct. In the run-up to this year’s national and provincial elections, it will be increasingly important for voters to be able to make informed decisions. This series aims to provide voters with the tools to do that.

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