South Africa faces significant challenges in unemployment, poverty and inequality. These are not only social or economic issues. In South Africa they carry the weight of history and are integral to political discourse. They also have many sides and in Economics circles a forum like the ECON3x3 blog has gone some way to present the different facets of unemployment and the policy responses to it.
Every now and then, however, you stumble across a newspaper article that makes you think for a moment. This weekend Hannelie (@MensDom) pointed me towards one in Beeld. The opening line says that at least 20 million people in South Africa do not know where their next meal is going to come from. This is the finding of a multidisciplinary study published by the Water Research Commission. For a moment there I thought wow, that is terrible. It is almost half of the population! But how can that be, what about all the progress that has been made? Then the economist part of the brain kicked in and wanted to know where do they get those numbers?
Well, newspaper reports like a good opening line that draws attention, but luckily the whole story is more nuanced that 20 million hungry people. As it turns out, the report in question is a scoping report. It is a literature study for a project titled: Water use and nutrient content of crop and animal food products for improved household security: A scoping study. The WRC executive manager for Water utilisation in agriculture, Dr Backeberg writes in the press release: “Before researching water use and nutritional productivity of crops, it is essential to know what food is consumed by poor people; what the nutrient content is of these food products; and which of these foods can be can be produced by household members, either in homestead gardens or communal croplands.” The key point is that we don’t know enough about household food intake. The report has no new numbers and gleans data from a 2005 source.
My point is that though I like writing about the challenges facing South Africa, we should also acknowledge the progress that has been make. It can do a great deal to aid that political discourse mentioned above. Earlier this year, Steuart Pennington wrote an interesting opinion piece for MoneyWeb. In this he writes that we should stop claiming that 40% of the population lives in poverty – 40% of the population may be poor, but they are not living in poverty. Approximately 2.7% of the population lives in absolute poverty on $2 per day or less.
Cash grants and other transfers, along with rising real wages for those with jobs, have helped reduce the number of people living in poverty (on less than $2 a day) from 8.4m (19% of the population) in 1999 to 1.4m (2.7%) in 2011.
The improvement is also shown in SAARF LSM numbers:
People on the lowest living standard measure (LSM1) have only a radio and minimal access to services, but those in LSM6 also have stoves, water, electricity, TVs, DVDs, flush toilets, fridges, and cell phones. The proportion of adults in LSM1 has dropped from 10.5% in 2001 to 1% in 2011, while the proportion of people in LSM6 has almost doubled from 12.6% in 2001 to 22.4% in 2011.”
Now all this is not to say that people are not poor, or not hungry, or that we can ignore the challenges facing South Africa. Those are real and significant, but so the progress that has been made. Getting the facts right can help researchers and policymakers to also get the policies right.