WP 07/123 - Sticking to the Facts: Official and Unofficial Stories about Poverty and Unemployment in South Africa

Charles Meth

Date of Publication: 
June 2007

The major cause of poverty is unemployment. This paper looks at aspects of the way government responds to claims that are made, chiefly by academics, about poverty and unemployment. Official statistics on poverty and unemployment enjoy little favour among senior politicians and civil servants. ‘Unofficial’ poverty and unemployment statistics, by contrast, are seized upon with enthusiasm if they contradict the gloomy picture created by numbers that suggest (with monotonous regularity) that improvements in the lives of the poor are not happening fast enough. The first part of the paper explores possible explanations of government’s extreme sensitivity to criticism. The second part of the paper looks at an old chestnut, the repeated claim by government that the severity of the unemployment problem has (in part?) to do with the ‘fact’ that the number of economically active people has grown faster than the number of working age people. The third part of the paper looks briefly at the van der Berg et al (2005) poverty reduction estimates for the period 2000-2004 (they have the headcount falling from 18.5 to 15.4 million), before reproducing my estimates for the period 2001-2004 (the headcount falls from about 19.5 to somewhere in the region of 18 million. Suggestions are offered for the proper academic conduct upon releasing contentious results into a highly-charged political debate.

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