Poverty measurement in South
Africa: involving people in the
definition process in a highly
unequal society
Dr Gemma Wright presented by David McLennan
Second Peter Townsend Memorial Conference
Measuring Poverty: The State of the Art
22nd January 2011
Introduction – involving people
in defining poverty
The definition of poverty is not necessarily just
the terrain of academics.
 There are many ways in which people can
inform the way in which poverty is defined and
measured, which in turn can inform policy
solutions, e.g.
democratically-derived income poverty threshold
(e.g. minimum income question)
 ‘Voices of the poor’ approach
 democratically-derived set of multi-dimensional
deprivation indicators (e.g. the consensual
Introduction - South Africa
9 provinces and 11 official languages
Population: 49.99 million people in 2010 (Stats SA, 2010)
Population groups: 79% Black African, 9% Coloured,
9% White, 3% Indian/Asian (using SA terminology) (Stats
SA, 2010)
Life expectancy: 53 for men, 55 for women (Stats SA, 2010)
 Headcount ratio: 0.70 (R949 per capita pcm) (Leibbrandt et al., 2010)
 Gini coefficient: 0.70 in 2008 (Leibbrandt et al., 2010)
 High levels of multiple deprivation, especially in former
homeland areas (Noble et al., 2009)
Introduction – South Africa
Central questions that arise when involving people in
the poverty definition process in South Africa include:
In the context of such high levels of income poverty,
will most people have minimalist views about
Given the legacies of colonialism, segregation and
apartheid (i.e. stark racial, spatial and wealth
inequalities) will we find different ideas of an
acceptable standard of living amongst different
How do definitions of necessities differ by place?
The Indicators of Poverty and
Social Exclusion Project
Takes as its starting point what ordinary people regard
as an acceptable standard of living that all South
Africans should enjoy in the present day.
Follows the tradition of Townsend, Mack and Lansley,
Gordon and Pantazis and the many subsequent
studies using this approach in the UK and
Resonates with struggle history e.g. the collection of
people’s political social and economic demands which
were reported to the Congress of the People and which
fed into the preparation of the 1955 Freedom Charter.
Explores the possibility of a relative, multi-dimensional
definition of poverty which is consistent with the policy
prescriptions in South Africa.
48 focus groups asking what people should be
able to have/have access to/do in order to have
an acceptable standard of living in present-day
South Africa
 Pilot survey of definitions in South African
Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2005
 Definition and measurement questions in
SASAS 2006 (nationally representative data)
to develop a democratic definition of poverty
 and to measure who has and does not have the
socially perceived necessities
SASAS 2006 module
Module attempted to represent the breadth of issues
raised in focus groups (across domains of deprivation)
and a range of probable ‘basics’ through to probable
Module did not attempt to address issues of quantity
and quality and made no assumption about the
provider of the necessities
Module had 50 definitional questions: 33 about
possessions, 4 about activities, 8 about the
neighbourhood, and 5 about relationships with friends
and family
SASAS 2006 findings: the
socially perceived necessities
36 of the 50 items were defined as essential by
more than half the population
 For the 36 items that were defined as essential
by 50% or more of the population, the scale
reliability coefficient (alpha) was calculated to
be 0.9201
 The percentage of the population defining each
of the 49 common items as essential in 2005
and 2006 correlates 0.96 (Spearman’s rho)
Domains or Themes emerging
Using PCA a number of themes emerged - three were
particularly prominent:
service provision/infrastructure-oriented (mains electricity,
a weather-proof house, street lighting, tarred roads close to
the house, and separate bedrooms for adults and children )
material possessions (TV, cell phone, radio, sofa/lounge
suite, a special meal at Christmas or equivalent festival and
some new clothes)
social networks (someone to talk to if you are feeling upset
or depressed, someone to lend you money in an emergency,
someone to look after you if you are very ill, having an adult
from the household at home at all times when children under
ten from the household are at home)
Was there a consensus about the
A striking level of agreement between
groups e.g. % defining each of the 50
items as essential correlate highly:
 Women
& men: 0.98
 Aged 16-24 & aged 25+: 0.97
 Aged 65+ & aged under 65: 0.95
 Equiv. hh income (R847 pcm): 0.92
 Urban & rural: 0.90
What are the patterns of possession
of the socially perceived necessities?
Number of items defined as essential is similar by population
group, but possession of the necessities is a very different story
Median number of socially perceived
necessities lacked by self-defined
poverty status
Self-defined poverty
Median number
of SPNs lacked –
Average per
capita monthly
% of the
Very comfortable
Just getting along
Very Poor
Source: SASAS 2006
Influence of context on preferences
This approach embraces the fact that:
‘the public’s perceptions of necessities reflect the conditions and
dependencies of contemporary life – whether these are created by
market availability or by developments in social structure and
interaction’ (Pantazis et al., 2006: 119)
Nevertheless it is still useful to explore the extent to
which people’s definitions of necessities are influenced
by their circumstances (McKay, 2004; Hallerod, 2006).
We therefore wanted to explore issues such as
‘Life on a low income can depress aspirations, leading some groups to
express that they do not want items that, in other circumstances,
they might well desire.’ (McKay, 2004: 218).
Preferences and poverty definition
and measurement
The experience of poverty can, in itself, dampen
This may manifest itself at both the definition and
measurement stages
Definition – ‘out of my league’ (i.e. answering ‘not essential’
thereby deflating levels of % saying essential for items)
Measurement – ‘didn’t want it anyway’ (i.e. answering ‘don’t
have, don’t want’ thereby deflating % with enforced lack)
Yet deciding that people need things other than what
they feel (or are willing to say) that they need is
problematic and in this context brings with it the danger
of imposing ‘expert’ definitions of need
Adaptive preferences and time
People’s expectations about their standards of living
may have lowered due to persistent poverty; or risen
(e.g. due to political climate, change of reference
group, change of economic status), or not changed at
all over time.
Burchardt - a longitudinal study is needed to explore
adaptive preferences
Yet it is possible to explore the issue by identifying
situations where people’s circumstances may have had
an impact on their definitions of socially perceived
necessities and therefore where adaptive preferences
may exist
Urban and rural definitions of
Urban and rural responses to the 50 items correlate
31 items (of the 36 socially perceived necessities)
were defined as essential by 50% or more of urban
respondents and by 50% or more of rural respondents
There are instances where items are defined as ‘more
essential’ by urban respondents than by rural
respondents e.g. air quality and security.
‘Bounded’ or ‘different’ realities
Conversely, some items were defined as more
essential in rural areas than in urban areas.
In the SASAS 2005 pilot there was one item which
rural respondents rated as a necessity but urban
people did not, using the 50% threshold – the
wheelbarrow (a transitional necessity…)
Necessities for poor people in informal
settlements and former homelands
No significant discrepancies were found between people in
informal urban areas and in former homeland areas for two of the
three main emerging themes identified, i.e. items relating to
material possessions (apart from the television) and social
However, having controlled for income and possession,
people in urban informal areas were more likely to define service
delivery items as essential than people in other areas (urban
formal, rural formal, former homeland): street lighting, tarred
roads, flush toilet, bath or shower.
This does not mean that poor people in rural areas are satisfied
with poor service delivery: SASAS shows high dissatisfaction in
rural and urban areas.
Possible reasons for differences
Urban informal - influenced by the
evidence of good service delivery in
urban formal areas, e.g. over 100 service
delivery protests in 2010 in deprived
urban areas.
People in former homeland areas may be
defining service related items
pragmatically, dissatisfied with the status
quo but not defining them as essential
due to the unlikely probability of obtaining
these items in the near future.
Concluding Remarks
People regard an acceptable standard of living in a
multi-dimensional way and the ‘essentials’ go beyond
mere subsistence
 Striking levels of agreement across different groups
about what constitutes an acceptable standard of living
 Possible influence of place on definitions of
necessities. Service delivery items are at the forefront
for people in informal settlements – living at the cutting
edge of an unequal society.
 Amidst high levels of internal migration and
urbanisation a longitudinal study would shed further
light on adaptive preferences and place.
Grateful thanks to David McLennan for presenting the paper.
Members of the IPSE project team: Michael Noble (PI), Gemma
Wright, Andrew Ratcliffe, Wiseman Magasela, Helen Barnes,
Danielle Mason and Lucie Cluver (University of Oxford).
Collaborators: Jonathan Bradshaw (University of York), Sharon
Zichawo and Richard Chigume (University of Fort Hare), Ben
Roberts (Human Sciences Research Council).
Focus group facilitators: Wiseman Magasela, Andrew Ratcliffe,
Esmerelda Alman, Tozama Diamond, Desiree Galeshewa, J
Govender, Zola Hloma, Daryl Howard, Mbu Kunene, Xolani
Kupiso, M Mogotsi, Khanyisa Ndzuta, Geoffrey Nkadimeng, BP
Qwana, Siphiwo Tayo, Matimela Joyce Lerato Tsiti and Anna van
den Berg
The IPSE project was undertaken between 2003 and 2008 for the
Department of Social Development in the Republic of South Africa
with funding from the UK Department for International
Development Southern Africa, as part of the Strengthening
Analytical Capacity for Evidence-based Decision-making
(SACED) Programme.
Project outputs
Wright, G., Noble, M. and Magasela, W. (2010) ‘Towards a democratic definition of poverty: socially
perceived necessities in South Africa’, in B. Roberts, M. wa Kivilu, and Y.D. Davids (eds.), South
African Social Attitudes 2nd Report: Reflections on the age of hope, Cape Town: Human Sciences
Research Council Press, pp. 143-166.
Noble, M., Wright, G., Magasela, W. and Ratcliffe, R. (2007) ‘Developing a Democratic Definition of
Poverty in South Africa’, Journal of Poverty 11(4), pp.117-141.
Wright, G. (2008) Findings from the Indicators of Poverty and Social Exclusion Project: A Profile of
Poverty using the Socially Perceived Necessities Approach: Key Report 7, Pretoria: DSD, RSA.
Barnes, H. and Wright, G. (2007) Findings from the Indicators of Poverty and Social Exclusion Project:
Education, Key Report 6, Pretoria: DSD, RSA.
Barnes, H., Cluver, L. and Wright, G. (2007) Findings from the Indicators of Poverty and Social
Exclusion Project: Children, Key Report 5, Pretoria: DSD, RSA.
Cluver, L., Magasela, W. and Wright, G. (2007) Findings from the Indicators of Poverty and Social
Exclusion Project: Health and a Safe Environment, Key Report 4, Pretoria: DSD, RSA.
Magasela, W., Wright, G., Ratcliffe, A. and Noble, M. (2006) Findings from the Indicators of Poverty
and Social Exclusion Project: Housing, Key Report 3, Pretoria: DSD, RSA.
Ratcliffe, A., Magasela, W., Noble, M., Wright, G., Zichawo, S. and Chigume, R. (2005) Methodology
for the Qualitative Stage of the Indicators of Poverty and Social Exclusion Project, Key Report 2,
Pretoria: DSD, RSA.
Noble, M., Ratcliffe, A., Magasela, W., Wright, G., Mason, D., Zichawo, S. and Chigume, R. (2004)
Preliminary Findings from the Qualitative Stage of the Indicators of Poverty and Social Exclusion
Project, Key Report 1, Pretoria: DSD, RSA.

Poverty measurement in South Africa