The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency has released the latest poverty statistics for the month of September 2021. The poverty datum line information that they release is not packaged with regular people in mind. One has to have a basic understanding of economics to fully comprehend the implications.
The headlines read, ‘Poverty Datum Line rises by 4.8%’ and everyone is expected to understand what that means. Not everyone will and also, sometimes looking a little closer at the data reveals some shocking nuggets. Let us break it all down.
Why measure poverty?
Poverty is measured with a view to end it. Various measures are taken to end poverty and by regularly measuring it we see which reduction measures are yielding the best results.
The measurements then try to determine the least amount of money that an individual or family needs to spend in a month to meet their basic needs. That minimum amount needed to attain a minimum level of health and decency is called the Poverty Datum Line.
Subjectivity is built in as someone has to decide what the minimum level of decency is. Poverty itself is mostly subjective although extreme poverty can be more universally agreed upon.
How is it measured?
First things first, food
First we agree on the minimum amount of food an individual needs in a period. Rather than talk about specific foods, we talk about calories. Calories are the amount of energy released when your body breaks down food.
In Zimbabwe, an individual needs at least 2100 calories a day. Less than that and they are going hungry and will be malnourished.
For context, a single slice of Bakers Inn Premium White bread has about 65 calories. So about 32 slices a day have the required calorie intake. A serving of 100g of sadza will have around 330 calories.
After determining the calories count, the next step is to find out the popular and accessible foods in an area. We decide on a basket that contains those foods and provides the required calories, 2000 daily. We then determine how much money is needed to purchase that basket.
The cost of that basket is then called the Food Poverty Line.
Here we consider rentals and the other essentials (soap and detergent, power, etc) a household needs for it not to be considered poor.
Total Consumption Poverty Line. (TCPL)
This measure is the one we often think about when we hear ‘poverty datum line.’
The TCPL is the sum of the Food Poverty Line and the non-food essentials. So it represents the least amount of money an individual or family needs to cover their food, rentals, clothing and other essentials.
Lower bound poverty line
With effect from November 2020, ZIMSTAT is now producing the Poverty Datum Lines (PDL) using the lower bound poverty line.
The lower bound poverty line is found by adding the Food Poverty Line and the average expenditure on non-food essentials for households whose total expenditure is equal to the Food Poverty Line.
The significance of this is that those earning less than this amount cannot afford both food and non-food essentials. They are forced to sacrifice their basic food and nutrition in order to afford the rentals and other non-food essentials.
We see this in the 0-1-1 and 0-0-1 combinations which refer to meals in a day, the 0 being a missed meal. Unfortunately, it is usually only brunch and supper (0-1-1) but with the recent price hikes, the 0-0-1 has become more popular. Leaving the families malnourished.
What are September’s figures
Food Poverty Line (FPL)
The Food Poverty Line was $4734.33 per person per month in September. That was a 4.8% increase from August where the figure was $4,516.52.
The average family size in Zimbabwe is 6 and so a family needs $28,405.98 per month to spend on food to get adequate nourishment.
Most Zimbabweans cannot afford that. Action Against Hunger reports that many Zimbabweans suffer from malnutrition. Even before the pandemic decimated the economy, Zimbabwe was already rated as one of the world’s top global food crises in the world.
Let us look at the rural areas where 67% of Zimbabweans live. The Zimbabwe Rural Livelihood Assessment Report revealed that household average monthly income increased from US$33 in 2020 to US$75 in 2021. That is around ZWL$6575.25, converted at the RBZ auction rate that is used in official reports.
That is a huge difference especially after considering that the average family size is bigger in the rural areas. The family size there is the one that drags the national average to 6 as urbanites have smaller families on average.
So a rural family earns $6575.25 and yet needs $28,405.98. That is a deficit of $21,830.73.
The situation is just as dire in urban areas. The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee reported that:
Nearly 83% of urban households are now struggling to buy the food they need for their families. They are unable to buy basics such as mealie meal, salt and cooking oil compared to 76.8% in 2019.
The Total Consumption Poverty Line (TCPL)
The TCPL for September stood at $6,653.65 per person. Up from $6,350.29 in August, another 4.8% increase. So remember, this represents food, rentals and other essentials.
This $6653.65 is the national average, the urban one should be higher than the rural one. A much lower proportion of rural households has to contend with rentals, which are the norm in the urban areas.
The difference between the FPL and this TCPL is $1919.32. It is misleading for the urban dwelling individual. Honestly, it makes it appear as if rentals plus other non-food essentials amount to $1919.32 (US$21.89). However when we consider that most landlords only accept USD, we have to convert the $1919.32 using the black market rate of 160 that the urbanite will use. That means US$12. In which urban center is US$12 enough to cover rentals and other non-food essentials?
When we consider the family unit, the TCPL makes more sense. A family of 6 would need $11,515.92 for their non-food essentials. That translates into US$72 which is just about enough to rent 2 rooms in high density suburbs.
What about school fees, transport, airtime, clothing and other essentials? It feels like $72 is not enough to meet all these non-food essentials. The challenge again is that the realities for rural and urban households are different. Most rural households do not have rentals and so their non-food essentials are lower.
Therefore the fact that they constitute 67% of the population means they drag down the value of non-food essentials. An urban household needs much more than US$72 for non-food essentials.
Urban households may actually be in a worse position than rural folk, especially since Covid-19 ravaged the nation. In 2020 household income declined by 90% for non-farm business households.
This all makes you wonder what kind of education children are getting. Both urban and rural households are struggling to buy the food they need. Rural households are earning less than the food poverty line for example, so where are they getting school fees for their children? Nowhere.
The picture painted above is not a pretty one. People are struggling and I am forced to realise that although I am struggling too, in the Zimbabwean context I’m actually fortunate. As are you, probably.
There are countries that faced similar challenges but were able to turn it around. That’s what we need in Zimbabwe. The time for politicking is past, we need proper economic recovery solutions that take into account the urgency of the matter. The short term should not be ignored in crafting turnaround solutions, otherwise few will be there to enjoy a revived Zimbabwe in the future.
It does us no good to hear that the country is on pace to meet growth targets when household incomes are falling. Vanity metrics do not feed the rural household earning US$75 a month or the 83% of urbanites struggling to buy mealie meal and cooking oil.
Zimbabwe can and should do better. I really hope this won’t descend into a political discussion. The average Zimbabwean doesn’t really care who wins the 2023 elections.