When are wage jobs not worth the trouble for township youth?

Image courtesy Style Architectz

Conventional wisdom holds that the pathway out of poverty is through a paying job. But for many South Africans, work does not offer the respite they hope for.

Accordingly, Rocco Zizzamia’s research asks a pertinent question, “Is employment a panacea for poverty in South Africa?” He posed the question in his MPhil thesis that recently notched a distinction at Oxford University in the UK.

Zizzamia’s research examines “who’s falling into and out of poverty” in poor black urban communities. To further our understanding of the underlying causal processes determining the dynamics of material wellbeing, Zizzamia, with the support of both the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and SALDRU, conducted primary qualitative fieldwork in Khayelitsha between July and September 2017. This data was integrated within an analysis of National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) panel data, which follows individuals over time and can track their movements into and out of poverty. In this way, his study expands on previous quantitative work undertaken by himself and other researchers using NIDS, and contributes a qualitative perspective to the investigation of poverty dynamics.

Echoing findings in quantitative research, Zizzamia’s study shows that labour market events – gaining or losing a job – are often most important in determining major shifts in an individual’s material wellbeing. At the same time, however, poor urban youths appear to be disproportionately likely to turn down or quit jobs. This counterintuitive finding suggests jobs may not always deliver the benefits we hope they will.

Considering this possibility, Zizzamia investigates the disincentives that disadvantaged workers face to taking up low-skilled jobs in South Africa. He finds that excessive transportation costs and distributional demands made on employed individuals within social networks represent an effective “tax” on already poorly paid jobs. Transport costs are especially high for those working irregular and unpredictable hours. When there are alternative sources of support within a household – which often is the case for young workers – the incentives to find employment are further weakened.

In addition, Zizzamia suggests that there may be psychological costs to low-skill employment. Low-skilled jobs tend to insert poor youth into environments that are significantly wealthier than the places they come from, such as middle class or affluent suburbs. Here they find themselves at the sharp end of inequality where they witness first-hand the chasm between their lives and those who are more fortunate. In this way, “inclusion” in the labour force is often experienced as an affirmation of the impossibility of meaningful upward mobility. To illustrate this, it is enough to think of how “economic inclusion through the labour market” is experienced by a car guard in Camps Bay or domestic worker in Constantia.

A combination of these material and psychological “costs” to employment appears to be responsible for the weak attachment to the labour market of many poor urban youths. Accordingly, Zizzamia’s study emphasises that understanding the complexity of the incentives that workers face and which inform labour market choices will be indispensable in designing policies which are effective in reducing inequalities in the labour market.

Zizzamia re-joins SALDRU in August as a research officer. We take this opportunity to welcome him to the team.

Slides from Zizzamia’s recent SALDRU seminar, which draws on this research, are available here.