19 October 2012

11 myths about poverty in SA

Poverty sucks. Three out of every five SA kids can tell you that. And millions of adults. So whose problem is this anyway, asks Susan Erasmus.


Poverty sucks. Three out of every five SA kids can tell you that. And millions of adults. So whose problem is this anyway, asks Susan Erasmus.

If you're reading this on the internet, chances are slim that you have been cold, hungry and dirty for prolonged periods in your life. It's one thing feeling sorry for someone begging in the rain – and quite another being the one begging in the rain.

Unless you're bedridden, or have not left the house in years, you will see visible signs of poverty every day in South Africa. From beggars, to informal settlements, to endless bus and taxi queues, to people walking next to highways in remote areas, and a constant stream of job seekers at homes and businesses.

If you felt real sympathy for every poor person you saw, you would very quickly start suffering from burnout and compassion fatigue, not to speak of a serious cash shortage. So you switch off. And it's not that you don't see it, but it doesn't hit home all the time. Every now and then someone manages to break through the defences and you crumble.

I have no idea how to tackle the problem of poverty and of huge income disparity in South Africa. I am no economist. My idea of financial success involves killing my credit card (and closing the account) and paying off my overdraft after two years of dedicated effort.

But what I do know is that there are several myths doing the rounds that are supposed to make large-scale poverty easier for everyone to stomach – both rich and poor. But in the end they're actually not part of any solution.

Poverty makes you noble. No, it doesn't. Poverty is humiliating. I am not talking of having to do without Diesel jeans and having to make do with Pep Stores jeans. I am talking of not having jeans. Or having to wear hand-me-downs that have gone way past their use-by date. Money does buy freedom of choice. It makes you less dependent on other people, and you never have to ask favours from others. Real poverty is grinding and it leaves you largely powerless and easily victimised. Not to speak of cold and hungry. It is difficult to retain your dignity in such circumstances. While an obsession with expensive material things certainly can stand in the way of spiritual development, extreme poverty can be spiritually debilitating.

Poverty is the poor people's problem. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. Holding people entirely responsible for their own situation in life comes down to blaming the victim – something we are very good at in SA. Yes, personal effort can lift you out of dire circumstances, but real poverty also brings with it a singular lack of opportunities. Many people who really want to work are also unable to find jobs in the area where they live, so it's not just a question of going out and finding a job.

Poor people don't pay taxes. Right, poor people, the unemployed and receivers of government grants are not registered as taxpayers. But every time they buy something like electricity they pay 14% VAT. Most food bought at shops (not informal street traders) is also taxed. Every time a taxi fills up with petrol – which is a lot more often than you fill up your car – endless taxes and levies are also paid.

Poverty is the rich people's problem. What is classified as 'rich' in SA would be seen as vaguely lower middle class in many developed countries. (I am not talking tenderpreneurs and the filthy rich). While conspicuous consumption is tasteless in an economically sensitive country, it must also be remembered that the high-income earners also pay much more tax than everybody else. While the rich should not ignore the plight of the poor, taking too much of their money in the form of taxes, might make them up and leave – taking their businesses, their buying power, their ability to create jobs and their taxes with them. Our country cannot afford that. Taking the money from the rich and giving it to the poor will solve the problem – for a week. Wealth is about earning capacity, not cash.

If you have a job you're not poor. You try and live on minimum wage. OK, I know that there's a correlation between income and skills level, but just being employed does not get you into the pound seats in SA. You probably won't starve or die of exposure, but your money won't stretch much further than the absolute basics for you and your family. And if you're doing unskilled labour, no one is going to pay you R16 500 per month. The harsh reality is that you can be easily replaced by another worker, or by a machine.

Money will sort out the problem of poverty. Poverty isn't just about cash. It's about an attitude to life, it's about socio-economic ills, which include things such as alcohol abuse and the prevalence of domestic violence. OK, granted, it's not that you don't find rich alcoholics – you do, but they probably just buy better booze. Unless you have the skills to manage your money, budget, and do some financial planning for the future, no amount of money will sort out your financial situation. If you're a spendthrift, or you are too generous to others, or you have something like a gambling problem, cash won't be a solution, however much there is of it.

It's easy to work your way out of poverty. Very few people manage this. It usually takes a few generations. Each generation climbs one rung up the ladder. There are very few rags-to-riches stories that are true. Hard work and dedication obviously do play a role in bettering one's life, but it's difficult to get ahead if you have a large and needy family, few opportunities and a lack of education.

Poverty is an African problem. Poverty is a worldwide problem. It is just as apparent in Mexico City and Delhi as it is in Lagos and Cape Town. Many things contribute to poverty: overpopulation, political and social instability, rigid class or political structures, unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, government corruption, vast income disparities, gender or race discrimination: unfortunately we tick every single box in this lovely country of ours.

Children are your riches. Mmm, no. If you have the time and money to enjoy them, they might bring you joys of another kind, but they cost money. Huge heaps of the stuff. You cannot rely on them to look after you in your old age. Things just don't work like that anymore. Buy insurance if that's what you need. But don't have kids as a pension policy. If you are unable to feed, love and clothe a child, educate it, spend time with it, and give it the occasional treat, you shouldn't be having one. Otherwise you are just perpetuating your own misery. I know I am assuming people have a choice in this matter - I also know this is not always the case. In some grim, desperate situations kids just happen.

Poverty is the government's problem. Yes and no. They are the recipients of society's collective cash in the form of taxes. If they are corrupt and siphon it off for their own use, they are betraying the poor and the community at large. While government can be held responsible for things such as policies and decisions about infrastructure, closer to home it's each man for himself. In short, they must lay on the electricity, but you must pay for your consumption. And grants are a short-term solution: if you have more receivers of grants than you have registered taxpayers, the well is going to run dry.

Only black people are poor. Historically black people have been disadvantaged in many countries. In South Africa, this group has by far the lowest per capita income. However, that does not mean that you don't find incredibly rich black people, or very poor white people. Colour in itself does not determine wealth, but it will take some time for South African society to normalise so that economic distinctions no longer run largely along colour lines.

Read more: Making the poor richer

(Susan Erasmus, Health24 October 2012)



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