Ambitious study to track poverty in SA

From sprawling shack settlements to destitute people begging for small change at traffic lights, poverty is a pervasive and destructive force in South African life. Less clear is why some beat the odds to escape poverty, and others not.

“Everyone knows that poverty exists,” says Ingrid Woolard, of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (Saldru) at the University of Cape Town.

“But to fight it we need much more detail about what forces propel some people out of unemployment and into jobs while others remain behind, without work, without skills. For that, and to track obstacles in similar transitions from high school to further education, we need to monitor large numbers of people over long periods of time.”

Starting in 2007, this is exactly what will happen. Under the supervision of Woolard, a massive research project will get under way in South Africa in which tens of thousands of citizens will be surveyed, year after year. The study will be the continent’s biggest review yet of social mobility, and is being financed with a tender of about R28-million won from the government.

“The National Income Dynamics Study is a great project,” says Saldru director Murray Leibbrandt, who will help lead the team of field workers and analysts who are conducting the research. “The university will be able to help government govern better, existing researchers will have access to a wealth of new information, and we can train a new generation of students and junior staff.”

Daunting task

Field workers will begin by fanning out across South Africa to visit 8 000 households in late 2007—with 30 000 people out of a population of about 45-million being surveyed every two years.

They will randomly knock on the doors of a dozen homes within each block of 150 households, and repeatedly interview members of those households—even following up on students, newly married persons and the likes as they move away from home.

This will prove an expensive task, requiring researchers to obtain contact numbers for a wide circle of acquaintances of interviewees in order to stay in touch with their subjects. But without tracking exactly the same people over a lengthy period of time, Saldru will have no hope of gaining deeper insights into what enables people to gain a foothold out of poverty.

The unit will not be able to pay those who give of their time to partake in the study. This is to avoid the results of the project being skewed in any way, and to ensure that field workers are not put at risk of being mugged. T-shirts and tea mugs are the most extravagant gifts on offer.

But, interviewees can expect birthday cards, newsletters and a “keeping in touch” telephone call every six months as they become part of the community focused on by the study. There will also be pre-paid postcards to notify Saldru of changes in address, and a toll-free telephone number for queries.

“We should be able to track the impact of pensions and other services. We’ll get a far more accurate picture of the coping strategies adopted by households facing changes, like the death of a breadwinner from Aids,” says Woolard.

South Africa is among the countries with the highest rates of adult HIV prevalence in the world. According to the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/Aids, 18,8% of 15- to 49-year-olds have contracted the virus.

Results of the survey will be posted on the internet by 2009, if all goes according to plan. Technical challenges that researchers face will also be presented for discussion, so that people doing similar work elsewhere don’t find themselves making the same mistakes. While the project has no fixed date of conclusion, the tender is expected to cover research for an initial period of three years.

Apartheid

It is hoped that the survey will also reveal important information about issues like internal migration—and something else at least as significant: how much of the country’s daily existence is still being shaped by its apartheid past, and what citizens and the government can do to reverse the effects of history.

Under apartheid, the best schools, jobs and suburbs—as well as voting rights—were reserved for minority white people. There is little doubt that this condemned generations of black South Africans to poverty, and that the legacy of racial discrimination survives to this day in a host of ways, such as reduced earning power among black people.

Very much in dispute is how extensive poverty still is in South Africa, and whether the government’s approach to tackling it has been appropriate.

“There has been constant debate among academics about the quality of the data [on poverty] and this has led to different findings,” says Vusi Gumede, chief policy analyst within the Presidency, and chair of the survey’s steering committee.

Although South Africa has no official poverty line, Woolard says citizens living on less than $2 (about R14) a day would certainly qualify as poor. According to the 2006 Human Development Report, produced by the UN Development Programme, just more than 34% of the population lives below $2 a day—and 10,7% on less than $1 a day.

Conservative fiscal policies adopted by the African National Congress-led government have paid off in steady growth, and have contained inflation.

However, the Congress of South African Trade Unions claims that business—and consequently politicians with good business connections—have been the primary recipients of these gains. Elsewhere, poverty has intensified, says the federation, with the gap between rich and poor widening.

Poverty reduction

Earlier this year, a senior professor from the University of Stellenbosch near Cape Town provided evidence that poverty had been substantially reduced since 2000—this after comparing data from the government, academia and market research.

But Servaas van der Berg qualified this statement by noting that the drop in poverty had not been due to a rise in employment. Rather, the government had been able to extend subsidies once reserved mostly for white people to the majority of citizens, but only by using cash reserves built up as a result of cautious management of the economy and improved tax collection.

The poor quality of education received by black people during apartheid means that many are unable to find jobs, even as the economy grows.

According to Statistics South Africa, the official government monitoring body, about a quarter of the adult population is consistently without work. However, an expanded definition of unemployment that includes those who have given up looking for jobs or who only perform occasional, menial labour indicates that nearly half of adults are unemployed.

Joblessness threatens the country’s hard-won democratic freedoms—not least through opening the door to crime, which has come to plague South Africa—and makes a compelling case for pushing ahead with analysis of social mobility.

“This kind of research is critical for many of the country’s most pressing economic debates about whether poverty has decreased and if so, by how much, and why,” says Woolard.—IPS

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