Social Indicators Research

, Volume 41, Issue 1–3, pp 95–118

“a Difficult Life”: The Perceptions and Experience of Poverty in South Africa

  • Julian May
  • Andy Norton


The purpose of this article is to provide a fuller and more integrated understanding of poverty based on the results of a nation wide participatory study recently completed in South Africa. A surprisingly consistent view of poverty emerges from the study which includes social isolation, malnourished children, crowded homes, the use of basic energy sources, no employment, and fragmented households. A clear image of what results from extreme poverty also emerges comprising continuous ill health, arduous and often hazardous work for virtually no income, no power to influence change, and high levels of anxiety and stress. The article concludes that conventional definitions of poverty do not fully describe the experience of poverty as analysed by the poor themselves. Instead, the multidimensional nature of poverty suggests that three basic concepts would be useful in any analysis of extent, nature and persistence of poverty. These are sufficiency, access and vulnerability.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Julian May
    • 1
  • Andy Norton
    • 2
  1. 1.Data Research AfricaDurbanSouth Africa
  2. 2.West and North Africa DepartmentOverseas Development AgencyLondonUnited Kingdom

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