400,000 “poor whites” in South Africa a myth: Africa Check

 ·19 Apr 2016

With a picture spread, the UK Mail Online documented the “squalid conditions” of South Africa’s “white squatter camps” earlier this year.

The first picture shows a white woman sitting on a makeshift bench below the tiny window of her corrugated iron shack. In another, a grey-bearded white man in a wheelchair sits in the shade of a tree with a goat urinating next to him.

Later two white children smile at the camera. “One is barefoot,” the caption reads, “and walks across the scratchy, sharp earth without any protection.”

The people in these pictures, from a squatter camp in Munsieville in Gauteng province, are part of a group of “more than 400,000 white South Africans [who] are thought to live in poverty”, according to the Mail Online.

Is the figure correct?

Three different degrees of poverty

Africa Check tweeted the journalist who wrote the story and emailed the Mail Online’s editor, but did not get a reply to our questions about the source of the claim.

It seems, though, that the Mail Online referred to a measurement of absolute poverty to work out how many white people are poor.

The article said that “those living in squalid conditions are forced to survive on around £28.99 a month”. (Note: At the time of publishing, this was equal to about R630 per month.)

South Africa’s national statistics agency, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), has three absolute poverty lines which capture different degrees of poverty, lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s economics department, Marisa von Fintel,previously told Africa Check.

“The food poverty line captures their estimate of what is needed in terms of food intake in order to survive, while the lower and upper bounds include the cost of other basic living needs,” Von Fintel explained.

How poverty is measured

The figure used by the Mail Online – of about R630 per month – does not reflect South Africa’s current national poverty lines, which were rebased last year.

The highest poverty line is the upper poverty line. It is currently R779 per person per month (in March 2011 prices).

Below this level someone will have to sacrifice buying some essential food in order to afford basic non-food needs like shelter or education (or vice versa). Above this level a person is considered able to buy necessary food and basic non-food items and is therefore classified as “non-poor”.

The points at which poverty lines are placed can look arbitrary. For example, someone earning R778 per month is considered to be living in poverty while her neighbour earning R780 is not.

However, academics have argued that “for purposes of analysis one frequently needs to draw the line somewhere”.

42,115 poor white people

So is the Mail Online’s figure of more than 400,000 poor white people supported by data from the national poverty lines? The short answer is no.

Stats SA’s living conditions survey manager, Patricia Koka, used their 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey to check the numbers for us. The survey has been conducted every 5 years since 2000 and just over 25,000 households were surveyed most recently.

Koka told Africa Check that 42,115 white South Africans were estimated to have lived on less than R779 per month in 2011.

This represented 0.9% of the total white population. In comparison, 63.2% of black people, 37% of colored people and 6.9% of Indian/Asian people were living in poverty.

Population group Number % of population group
African/Black 25 311 744 63.2%
Coloured 1 676 144 37.0%
Indian/Asian 87 969 6.9%
White 42 115 0.9%
South Africa 27 117 973 53.8%

(Note: Stats SA uses consumption data – as opposed to income data – to calculate the number of people living in poverty. That is because it may “better reflect a household’s actual standard of living and ability to meet basic needs”, Koka told Africa Check.)

But is poverty underestimated?

Some academics think that Stats SA’s poverty lines might underestimate poverty in South Africa.

Research published last year by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) suggested that the upper poverty line should actually be R1,042 per person per month in 2011 prices – not the lower figure of R779 used by Stats SA.

The difference is a methodological one. When Stats SA calculated its upper poverty line it decided to exclude some people’s spending habits which seemed very different from the norm – for example, extremely high or extremely low.

Josh Budlender was one of the authors of the SALDRU report. He is now a research fellow at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa.

Budlender told Africa Check that – while an adjustment was necessary – Stats SA may have overcorrected when they excluded these outliers.

He explained that while the issue of outliers was genuine, “the adjustment was too drastic, and actually made the poverty line more unrealistic than if they hadn’t adjusted it”.

“SALDRU used a different method to adjust for outliers, and ended up with a poverty line of R1,042 per month, which we think is a more methodologically correct figure,” Budlender said.

1.8% of white people poor

But even a higher poverty line doesn’t support the Mail Online’s claim.

Using Stats SA’s 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey, Budlender extracted the number of people who reported that they consumed less that R1,042 per month.

Using this higher poverty line, the number of white people estimated to be living in poverty increased to 82,573. This equalled 1.8% of the white population then.

In comparison, 73% of black people and 48.1% of coloured people lived under this poverty line.

Population group Number % of population group
African/Black 29 236 632 73.0%
Coloured 2 175 417 48.1%
Indian/Asian 150 409 11.8%
White 82 573 1.8%
South Africa 31 645 031 62.8%

Conclusion: Latest estimates showed less than 82,600 poor whites in SA

The Mail Online’s claim that more than 400,000 white South Africans live in poverty is incorrect.

Data from Statistics South Africa’s 2010/2011 Income and Expenditure Survey showed that 42,115 white people lived below the official upper bound poverty line of R779 per person per month. This represented 0.9% of white people in 2011.

When using a higher poverty line – which some researchers argue is more appropriate – the estimate increased to 82,573.

Poverty is extremely high in South Africa. But proportionately, very few white people live in poverty compared to other race groups.

Researched by Kate Wilkinson, edited by Anim van Wyk

This article was first published by AfricaCheck.

More on poverty

Shocking number of white squatter camps in South Africa

South Africa’s poor living on R7 a day

Most whites in SA still earn 6 times more than blacks

Whites – you have been warned: Malema

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