WP14/2006

The South African poor white problem in the early 20th century: Lessons for poverty today

Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. WP14/2006

Author(s): Johan Fourie

JEL Classification: N37, N97, I31

Keywords: poverty, poor white problem, inequality, policy proposals

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Abstract:

The causes of the poor white problem, first noted at a Dutch Reformed Church Synod in 1886, were unclear; many blamed the inadequate education system, urbanisation, cheap wages or cultural factors, while others argued that external events such as the rinderpest disease or the Anglo-Boer war added to the numbers of poor whites. Today, poverty is still at the heart of many policy debates in South Africa. A bad educational legacy, urbanisation, labour legislation, culture and tradition, and external factors are still amongst the factors said to be the causes of poverty. This paper assesses the similarities and differences between black poverty today and white poverty a century ago, and suggests possible policy lessons to learn from the past.