Poverty de­bate must in­clude black mid­dle

CityPress - - Voices - Ja­son Musyoka voices@city­press.co.za

Oc­to­ber 17 marked the 25th an­niver­sary of the dec­la­ra­tion of the in­ter­na­tional day for the erad­i­ca­tion of poverty by the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly.

It passed qui­etly in most parts of the world con­sid­er­ing the more ur­gent news around the world.

That day, there was a drive-by mass shoot­ing in New York; and the news that Spain’s na­tional court had de­nied bail to Jordi Sànchez i Pi­canyol, the pres­i­dent of the Cata­lan Na­tional Assem­bly, and Jordi Cuixart, the pres­i­dent of Òm­nium Cul­tural, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­motes Cata­lan’s lan­guage and cul­ture. Pend­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion both men are the lead­ers of the call for ces­sa­tion of Cat­alo­nia from Spain.

Also on the day, South Africans woke up to news that the per­sonal records of about

31.6 mil­lion South Africans had been leaked on­line. But this was not the big­gest lo­cal news of the day. Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s sec­ond Cab­i­net reshuf­fle in a year was.

All the above events over­shad­owed the in­ter­na­tional day of erad­i­cat­ing poverty. For most coun­tries, this de­bate will be de­ferred to next year – if other events such as the above do not stand in the way. There are no guar­an­tees, of course. But colour­ful events (tragic as some are) should not eclipse the en­dur­ing tragedy of the poor.

In South Africa, over half of the pop­u­la­tion (55%) live be­low the coun­try’s up­per poverty line of R992 per per­son per month. If we con­sider the na­tional av­er­age house­hold size of four, this trans­lates to a R 3 968 house­hold monthly in­come – which is just about the na­tional min­i­mum wage (R3 500). The per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion whose hunger is in­duced by poverty rose from 21.4% in 2011 to 25.2% in 2015. This was what the news should have been about on Oc­to­ber 17.

In his book, Cap­i­tal in the Twenty-First Cen­tury, Thomas Piketty sug­gests that in­her­ited wealth is the most ef­fec­tive way of ad­dress­ing poverty. He bases his ar­gu­ment on the the­ory that in­come from as­sets (cap­i­tal in­come) and not in­come from em­ploy­ment (labour in­come) is a more sus­tain­able way of cre­at­ing wealth.

Piketty’s ar­gu­ment pre­sup­poses a mid­dle class which has al­ready ac­cu­mu­lated wealth, and is able to trans­mit it to the next gen­er­a­tion. In this way we can think of ad­dress­ing the kind of poverty which has tended to last from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other.

Over the long haul, the de­bate in South Africa has fo­cused on poverty al­le­vi­a­tion through em­ploy­ment, or labour in­come. There has been a lot of fo­cus on pro­vid­ing jobs to the poor, but the black mid­dle class does not seem to fea­ture any­where in the poverty al­le­vi­a­tion de­bate. Re­search on the black mid­dle class of­ten fo­cuses on their con­sump­tion – how they dress, what cars they drive, where they go for leisure. Im­plic­itly, Thomas Piketty sug­gests that we look to the coun­try’s black mid­dle class if we want to ad­dress poverty mean­ing­fully in the next gen­er­a­tion.

The black mid­dle class, how­ever, is not well po­si­tioned to ac­cu­mu­late wealth for the next gen­er­a­tion. Most black South Africans in the mid­dle class are em­ployed by the state. State em­ploy­ment, for ex­am­ple, has in­creased from 2.4 mil­lion in 2009, to 2.7 mil­lion in 2017.

The black mid­dle class started to ex­pand rapidly only af­ter 1994. In 1993, the num­ber of peo­ple in the black mid­dle class was es­ti­mated at 300 000, com­pared with 3 mil­lion in 2015. Those who work for the state re­ceive higher wages than in the pri­vate sec­tor. How­ever, Pro­fes­sor Deb­o­rah James’ re­search has shown that most of them are heav­ily in debt, not nec­es­sar­ily the kind of debt which comes from ac­cu­mu­lat­ing as­sets, but the kind that is based on so­cial de­pen­den­cies and mu­tual obli­ga­tion.

The black mid­dle class, there­fore, re­lies on labour in­come to pro­vide for the needs of rel­a­tives and to main­tain their life­style. Their chil­dren might go to pri­vate schools, but there is lit­tle else to trans­mit to them in the form of wealth. The role of the black mid­dle class in ad­dress­ing poverty is a blind spot in South Africa’s poverty de­bate.

The in­crease in un­em­ploy­ment from 21.5% in 2008 to 27.7% in 2017 means that the black mid­dle class is even more ob­li­gated to look af­ter unemployed rel­a­tives, and there­fore less able to ac­cu­mu­late wealth, which in turn af­fects poverty al­le­vi­a­tion ef­forts in the next gen­er­a­tion. What is worse, some of the black mid­dle class have fallen into poverty, elim­i­nat­ing the chances of inter-gen­er­a­tional poverty al­le­vi­a­tion in a par­tic­u­lar house­hold.

For ex­am­ple, be­tween 2011 and 2015, three mil­lion more peo­ple be­came poor in South Africa. This is largely “poverty from above”. In­di­vid­u­als with some form of em­ploy­ment but no as­sets to fall back on dur­ing eco­nomic shocks lost their labour in­come and fell back into poverty.

Per­haps then, in South Africa, the next in­ter­na­tional poverty erad­i­ca­tion day should be a black mid­dle class day, not nec­es­sar­ily to cel­e­brate its achieve­ment, but to find ways to fa­cil­i­tate as­set ac­cu­mu­la­tion in this sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion.

But that will be six months be­fore the next gen­eral elec­tions, and there­fore a po­lit­i­cal eclipse of the day is highly likely.

In the next 25 years, South Africa could change the cur­rent pic­ture of wide­spread and deep poverty in a sig­nif­i­cant way – but only if we bring the black mid­dle into the poverty al­le­vi­a­tion de­bate.

Musyoka is a post­doc­toral fel­low at the Hu­man Econ­omy Pro­gramme, the Cen­tre for the Ad­vance­ment of

Schol­ar­ship, Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria

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