Perceptions of fortune and misfortune in older South African households: Social assistance and the `good life'

Type Journal Article - Social Indicators Research
Title Perceptions of fortune and misfortune in older South African households: Social assistance and the `good life'
Volume 111
Issue 3
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2013
Page numbers 633-664
It is commonly assumed that better living standards will boost subjective well-being. The post-apartheid South African government subscribes to this idea; its social policies aim to provide `a better life for all'. Since the coming of democracy in 1994, the state has built over 3 million houses and supplied electricity and clean water to poor households. By 2009, an estimated 43 {\%} of households were beneficiaries of social grants. The question is whether this investment in services and social assistance translates into higher well-being of citizens. It is argued that older people's experience of positive change in their life circumstances can be taken as a litmus test of progress in society. The paper reports results of a sample survey conducted in 2009 that inquired into the living circumstances and well-being of 1,000 older low-income households in two provinces linked by a labour migration route. Older households were defined as ones with a member 55 years and older. The sample was drawn among three approximately equal-sized subgroups: Rural black households in the former `homelands' of the Eastern Cape Province, and black and coloured households in Cape Town in the Western Cape Province. The majority of the households in the survey had been interviewed in an earlier survey conducted in late 2002. Both material and non-material changes had occurred in the household situation over the 6-year period between 2002 and 2009. Access to housing and infrastructure had improved but financial difficulties and debts continued to plague many of the surveyed households. Rural black households appeared to be worst off among the three categories of older households with the lowest level of living; coloured households best situated with the highest level of living. Urban black households, many of whom were immigrants to Cape Town, appeared to have experienced the greatest fluctuations in their material circumstances between 2002 and 2009 and a mix of fortune and misfortune. Results indicated that social grants, which provided a modicum of financial security and peace of mind, made the crucial difference between fortune and misfortune for vulnerable households. Securing a social pension and other grants appeared to be the main route to good fortune for the rural households in the study. Households in Cape Town required wage income in addition to grant income to get by in the city. This mix of income sources diluted urban households' dependence on social assistance. Regression model results suggest that income and financial security play a significantly more important role in boosting the well-being of low-income older households than access to services. Pooling of income, a common practice in pensioner households, contributed significantly to household satisfaction.

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