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Female retirees in the cold face of poverty

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa recently acknowledged that “South Africa needs a new consensus to tackle poverty, unemployment and inequality”.

Despite the government’s efforts to tackle poverty by providing government subsidies, it is still increasing. In 2020, it was reported that half of the population was experiencing hardship that has drawn individuals and households into poverty.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African economy grew very slowly, with high unemployment rates and rising food prices. The poverty status of South Africans has further deteriorated due to the pandemic, with the result that 1 million people are expected to live in poverty.

Retirees living on less than 16% of their pre-retirement salaries are the hardest hit, despite access to state pensions.

The number of retirees at risk of poverty is growing, making them three times more likely to live in poverty than any other age group.

And within the cohort of retirees, women suffer the most.

In addition, female retirees are disadvantaged because of the economic inequality they experience before retiring. Women, for example, make up the largest group of low-paid workers, have to deal with unequal opportunities on the labor market and have informal care responsibilities.

Poverty is multidimensional and complex. But previous studies argue that perceptions of marginalization, social exclusion, and experiences of resource deprivation are better understood by looking at women’s circumstances and living conditions.

By understanding how women experience their circumstances, we are better informed about how they navigate, negotiate and live their lives.

To understand poverty through a gender lens, my research focused solely on retired women’s perception of poverty. I investigated whether retired South African women saw themselves as poor. The perception of poverty was based on the answer to the question:

Would you say that you and your family…. (1) rich (2) comfortable (3) quite comfortable (4) just get along (5) bad, and (6) very bad.

Poverty is generally associated with financial problems that can be measured directly. But perceptions of poverty are equally important because they help establish what people’s needs are, as perceptions are influenced by needs.

My research sought to determine which needs or factors determine the perception of gender-related poverty.

An accumulated burden

I looked at four categories of factors that predict poverty perceptions. These include:

  • demographic factors such as race, education, social class and marital status
  • economic considerations such as personal and family income levels, as well as state pension receipt
  • household adequacy measures. These include the adequacy of household food, education, housing and health care. It also included perceptions of satisfaction with financial security and standard of living.

I used a nationally representative survey that collects the social attitudes of South Africans. For my research, I limited the sample to retired female South African The Vanir-exoduss. This resulted in 325 respondents.

Most respondents indicated that they were black women over the age of 60 and were widowed. They also revealed that their highest level of education was primary education.

Of these respondents, 86% said they depended on government pensions and 76% said pensions were their main source of income.

More than 60% of the women considered themselves poor.

As for assessing the factors that predict poverty perceptions, the study found that divorced and unmarried women were worse off than married women. In addition, black women reported a higher perception of poverty than women of other races. And those who depended on state retirement benefits were more likely to experience poverty in retirement, compared to retirees with additional sources of income.

More than 80% of women reported that their household had insufficient health care, housing, education and food supplies.

Another important finding was that income was not fully responsible for the perception of poverty. Instead, retired women reported that their perceived financial security and satisfaction with their standard of living influenced whether or not they were poor.

Perhaps the most interesting finding relates to the role of education. Education is often seen as a means of lifting people out of poverty.

But my research revealed that education does not fully reduce the risk of gender poverty.

This is because education does not fully correct the inequalities experienced during a woman’s life cycle. Despite the presence of education, the cumulative burden of gender, financial inequality and advanced age play together to result in the conception of poverty.

What has to happen?

Traditionally, poverty is viewed from the perspective of lack of money. However, its multidimensional nature means that a broader lens must be applied, as people living in poverty can experience multiple disadvantages at once. Therefore, understanding how retirees view their financial security and satisfaction with their standard of living provides clearer insight into gender-related poverty perceptions.

Of course, the financial challenges of retirees are important to consider. But improving access to resources at the family level is an important strategy for overcoming poverty. This is especially true for female-headed households.

Education remains an important tool to eradicate uncertainty about pension income and poverty among the elderly population. In particular, access to education at family level is paramount to reduce the risk of poverty during retirement. This is because it is less challenging for a household to lift one person out of poverty than it is for one person to lift an entire household out of poverty.

Gender bias is still prevalent in many employment policies and practices. As a result, many women are seriously disadvantaged in the labor market. This ultimately leads to insufficient savings and uncertainty about pension income.

Greater involvement of women in policy making is necessary for the social change needed to eradicate gender poverty. The underrepresentation of women as policy makers slows down the development of gender neutral policies. And as the chairman put it:

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the current situation we find ourselves in, of deep poverty, unemployment and inequality, is unacceptable and unsustainable.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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