Study of the Incidence and Nature of Chronic Poverty and Development Policy in South Africa: An Overview, CPRC Working Paper No. 3


The purpose of this study is fourfold: first, to summarise the current state of knowledge about chronic poverty in South Africa; second, to describe the range of existing governmental and civil society initiatives which address chronic poverty; third, to identify challenges to addressing chronic poverty in South Africa; and fourth, to identify themes for further research.

For the purposes of this study, a household or individual is understood to be in chronic poverty when its or her condition of poverty endures over a period of time. Different researchers propose alternative time periods as characteristic of chronic poverty (e.g. six months, ten years), usually taken to mean that the household or individual remains beneath the poverty line for all or virtually all of this period. Alternatively, and perhaps more meaningfully, chronic poverty can be understood as a household's or individual's inability, or lack of opportunity, to better its circumstances over time or to sustain itself through difficult times. As such, chronic poverty can be a function of the individual's characteristics (e.g. elderly, disabled), or of the environment (e.g. sustained periods of high unemployment, landlessness), or very likely of both. Indeed, a common scenario in South Africa involves the coincidence between poor health, meagre education, and fractured families, on the one side, with skewed resource distribution, inadequate infrastructure, and scarce employment opportunities, on the other side. The combination is more than sufficient to trap many people in poverty, i.e. to make them chronically poor.

To date, there has been only one data set collected in South Africa allowing an inter-temporal comparison among the same households. This is the KwaZulu-Natal Income Dynamics Study (KIDS), which as the name implies covers one of the provinces rather than the whole country. Because this data set and the analyses based upon it are unique, we discuss them at length. One of the important findings from the KIDS data is that 22% of the 1200 African households that were surveyed, were poor in both 1993 and 1998. This represents about two-thirds of all households that were poor in 1993, and one-half of those that were poor in 1998, meaning that at least half of those households that are poor, are chronically poor. Another interesting finding is that 'ultrapoverty' is not synonymous with chronic poverty. In other words, a household that is just below the poverty line in one period is no more likely to move above the poverty line in the next period, as a household that started off much further below the poverty line. A key determinant of whether a household stays in poverty, escapes from poverty, or falls into poverty, is how that household fares in terms of employment. One of the surprising findings from the KIDS data set was the degree of employment volatility experienced by households. Notwithstanding household income sources other than formal sector employment, these apparently make the difference between survival and total destitution, but less commonly between being poor and being non-poor.

The KIDS-based studies as well as other poverty analyses, allow us to identify groups especially likely to be chronically poor. These include rural households, women-headed households, households effectively headed by elderly people, and former (retrenched) farm workers. Over the next 10 years, however, AIDS orphans and households directly affected by AIDS, will likely figure as the most prominent category of people mired in chronic poverty.

The paper goes on to survey the variety of anti-poverty measures of government and civil society. Measured by expenditure, the government's social security system is by far the largest antipoverty instrument in the country, and probably one of the more functional.

As a gross generalisation, government-led developmental initiatives have not proven to be terribly successful, not least because of the intrinsic difficulty of the task they set themselves. A number of challenges face government and civil society to address poverty in general and chronic poverty in particular. Among these are: first, the absence of a coherent anti-poverty strategy, and particularly one that takes into account the distinction between chronic poverty and transitory poverty; second, the bleak prospects for growth in formal sector employment over the medium terms, together with general uncertainty about how to improve support to the SMME sector; and third, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the effects of which will likely be far more apparent in the next 15 years than to date. The paper concludes with suggested priority areas for further research.


Study of the Incidence and Nature ofChronic Poverty and DevelopmentPolicy in South Africa: An Overview, CPRC Working Paper No. 3, Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC), Manchester, UK, ISBN 1-904049-02-8, 67 pp.

Study of the Incidence and Nature of Chronic Poverty and Development Policy in South Africa: An Overview, CPRC Working Paper No. 3

Published 1 January 2001