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The Urban Poverty Phenomenon

Image by Tom Fisk on Pexels

“Rural to urban migration” or “urbanization” is usually mentioned in an optimistic fashion when praising the effects of the movement of people from the countryside/rural areas into cities. In the pre-pandemic world, moving to the cities was just another logical decision for most individuals. It was generally seen as a rational decision for any ambitious working-age individual who is looking to press their stamp on the world or at the very least provide better financial stability for themselves.

The reasons for urbanization cannot just be pinned down to potential financial gain. A “push and pull” effect exists. The “push” being reasons to leave rural areas and the "pull” being reasons to go to cities. Poor living standards, famine, and unemployment are examples of some of the push factors whilst higher income potential, better healthcare, better infrastructure, and better education are some examples of pull factors.

The view of urbanization being a positive “no brainer” is held to a lesser degree post-COVID-19. Cities still provide far higher wages than the rural areas in most nations across the globe. When it comes to this phenomenon, South Africa is no different from the rest of the world. People in cities are likely to earn vast amounts more than what their counterparts in rural areas earn.

The differences don’t just exist when comparing rural areas to cities but also when comparing different cities. The average person working in Johannesburg (which has the highest average salary per person of R447 857) is likely to make R130 000 more than a person who is working in Pretoria (where the average salary is R316 198) (Business Tech, 2019). The gap is even greater when you compare the average salary of a person working in Johannesburg to that of someone in rural areas. Averages don’t show the exact situation, but they do give insight into the situation.

Since big cities are a much more lucrative place to be, why has urban poverty become mainstream? Any mention of poverty potentially being more prevalent in cities than in rural areas will certainly raise eyebrows. Before looking at “Why urban poverty has grown so much?” it is prudent to look at “What urban poverty is?” Urban poverty refers to a set of economic and social difficulties that are found in industrialized cities. These difficulties are a result of a combination of processes such as the establishment of comfortable living standards, an increase in individualism, the process of social fragmentation and dualization of the labour market. It is a type of poverty with the primary characteristic that it occurs in industrialized societies (Rowtree, 1901). In South Africa though, over a third of the population in Cape Town live in slums or informal settlements. (, 2022)

Urban poverty can be attributed to several factors including high and persistent levels of inequality, high levels of urbanization and high inflation during crisis periods. South Africa currently has the highest Gini Coefficient in the world of 63%. Since the pandemic started the richest people in the world increased their wealth by close to a trillion dollars! This is at a time when most of the world has been suffering from wage cuts, job losses and more.

A significant proportion of the South African population is currently dependent on social grants and other government interventions. It can be argued that these highly concentrated populations in cities have caused a lot more harm than intended. Whilst the increased population means that there is a greater market for goods and services, it also means there is a greater demand for the few jobs available.

The economic growth in most cities cannot cope with the population growth. People tend to resort to drugs and violence as a means of making a living and the amenities that they migrated in search of are scarce. The current pandemic has rocked the world for about 2 years now and the inflation rate keeps going up. At a time like this, the prices of basic goods and services are increasing at a rate that the general earner cannot afford basic goods and services.

Government alone cannot do what is necessary as politics is a short-term game. We also can’t put all our faith in the benevolence of the private sector. The solution to this problem will take efforts from both the public and private sectors. Over and above that it will also take the efforts of the people directly affected to take the initiative by the way of setting up grassroots programs, development of manual skills, technical skills and the push to develop the rural areas in a way that has the most long-term benefits and sustainability!


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