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Global Poverty Research Group

Core poverty, basic capabilities and vagueness:
An application to the South African context

David A. Clark1 and Mozaffar Qizilbash2

Global Poverty Research Group

22 July 2005

SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
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This paper applies a framework which addresses the vagueness of poverty. The 'core poor' are those who are unambiguously poor. In applying the framework we use Sen's capability approach and results from a recent survey. These results suggest that some South Africans set tough standards for someone to qualify as poor. Even by these standards, our lower bound estimate of core poverty is higher than existing estimates of the 'most deprived' and 'ultrapoor'. This result is sensitive to the criteria used in applying the framework, though other results are more robust. While there is evidence that respondents adapted to their living conditions, it was not merely those who were deprived in specific dimensions who endorsed very low cut-offs in those dimensions.


A growing literature has attempted to apply Amartya Sen's capability approach to the measurement of poverty (Sen, 1992, 1993 and 1999, Chiappero-Martinetti, 1994, 1996 and 2000, Balestrino, 1996, Klasen, 1997 and 2000 and Majumdar and Subramanian, 2001 inter alia). Related literatures suggest that we need to recognize the many different dimensions of poverty as well as distinct groups amongst the poor, such as the ultra poor, the chronic poor and the transient poor. The differences between these groups relate primarily to the depth, or the duration, of poverty. In this paper, we apply Mozaffar Qizilbash's work which pursues Sen's suggestion (Sen, 1981, p.13) that poverty is a fuzzy or vague concept (Qizilbash, 2003). Qizilbash's work develops on the insights in Kit Fine's 'supervaluationist' account of vagueness (Fine, 1975) and involves the notion of 'core poverty' - which relates to lack of ambiguity about whether some person or household is poor.

In making the notion of core poverty operational, we also take our cue from insights in the literature on vagueness. These allow us to use the results from a survey on the 'Essentials of Life' (henceforth, 'the survey') which was administered in three locations in South Africa in 2001. A central aim of the survey was to select dimensions and critical levels which are relevant to judging deprivation in terms of 'basic capabilities'. Our methodology connects the literatures on vagueness and the capability approach with work on the perceptions of the poor and 'subjective' poverty lines (Narayan et al, 2000, Colastanto, Kapteyn and van der Gaag, 1984 and Pradhan and Ravallion, 2000 inter alia). It is also informed by Stephan Klasen.s application of the capability approach in the South African context (Klasen, 1997 and 2000). We compare our methodology and results with Klasen's throughout the paper to highlight the distinctiveness of our approach. Finally, we consider one potential objection to our methodology which focuses on the worry that deprived groups can adapt to their living conditions and that their responses can be misleading for this reason.

The paper is structured as follows: in section 1, we explain the framework; in section 2 related work on South Africa is discussed; in section 3, we describe the survey and fieldwork methodology; in section 4 we relate the survey results to the framework; section 5 focuses on the nature and extent of core poverty; the issue of adaptation is addressed in section 6; and section 7 concludes.

  1. Global Poverty Research Group (GPRG) and Institute for Development Policy and Management (IDPM), University of Manchester, Harold Hankins Building, Prescient Centre, Booth Street West, Manchester, M13 9QH, UK; and e-mail:
  2. School of Economics, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ.Tel: ++ 44 1603 593667; Fax: ++ 44 1603 250434; and e-mail:

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