A decent standard of living for all

According to a recent colloquium on disrupting poverty, a decent standard of life is not only about earning the national minimum wage but also rests on service delivery and social networks.

On 1 January, the national minimum wage came into effect. The legislation stipulates a minimum national rate of R20 an hour or R3 500 a month. But a Decent Standard of Living (DSL) study says R7 043 per person, per month is needed to live a decent life.

According to the study, only 1.7 million people, or 3% of the South African population, were able to meet this threshold for living a “decent” life.

Research organisations the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (Spii), the Southern Africa Social Policy Research Institute (Saspri) and the Labour Research Service (LRS) collaborated on the study with support from German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES). It yielded the definition of a DSL expressed in monetary terms and developed a DSL Index to uprate the DSL.

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Spii Johannesburg director Isobel Frye says the “DSL is a measure of what ordinary South Africans think are important issues, the 21 socially perceived necessities to enable anyone to live a decent life”.

She presented a paper at the fourth DSL colloquium, hosted in Tshwane by the FES on 31 October under the theme, Disrupting Poverty: Applying a Decent Standard of Living Measure Towards Coherent Policy Design. She says the purpose of the colloquium “is to ensure that policy makers begin to hear what we are talking about”. 

‘No details’

“The point is to try to change policy. We are debating the fact that the National Planning Commission has an endorsement of a decent standard of living, but there are no details. What we say is that ordinary people should be encouraged to have conversations in order to flesh out what constitutes a decent standard of living,” she says.

Frye cites Section 1 of the Constitution, which guarantees everyone a right to dignity. She explains how developing a standard is essential to enable policy makers to design policies aligned with meeting that standard.

South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which guarantees the right to an adequate standard of living for all people.

LRS director Trenton Elsley says the conference is about the measure of a decent life in a country saturated with literature on inequality and poverty.

“Because of this dual focus on poverty and wealth, it is our belief that the missing middle ground there is that we don’t have a picture of a decent life,” he says. “So we know what it is to be very poor and the dynamics that work, and we know what it means to be very wealthy and the dynamics that work. But we don’t know what a decent life looks like, how much it is, can we quantify it better in some way.”

31 October 2019: Special adviser on social policy Wiseman Magasela at the fourth Decent Standard of Living colloquium in Tshwane, South Africa. (Photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

The opinion of ordinary people

Financed by the Department of Social Development, the DSL was developed using steps that included finding out what ordinary people think. Focus groups across the country, 48 of them, contributed to the study with ideas about the things people agree are necessary to live a decent life. These are over and above basic needs such as food, transport and healthcare.

The DSL report identifies 21 socially perceived necessities (SPNs) based on these ideas. They include a house with electricity, a flushing toilet, television, a radio and someone to look after you if you fall ill. 

“More than two-thirds of people agree that each of those things [listed as SPNs] are necessary to live a decent life. And when you look at that list, people were quite modest,” says Elsley.

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Wiseman Magasela, who is a special adviser on social policy for the Ministry in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, explains that poverty measures used in the country date back to the 1930s. This means that 25 years after democracy, these same measures are still being used. Poverty lines were used to establish the wages of black workers during apartheid.

Interestingly, SPNs were not only identified by their monetary value but also through the social wage, which refers to services that the state is mandated to deliver, and social networks. 

The report says that even if you don’t have a job, you should still be able to access state healthcare and education. 

Social networks are also ways in which people can meet their needs without having to pay for them. In other words, if people require someone to care for them when they are sick, strong communities mean they can rely on their neighbours or family members.

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