It is often assumed that as people grow older, they become poorer and less satisfied with life. However, new research in South Africa and Brazil suggests the opposite. Older people in these countries perceive they are happier than they were at younger ages – all due to a reduction in household poverty through social assistance.
A study under the New Dynamics of Ageing Programme (NDA)  examines the well-being, livelihoods and social inclusion of older people in Brazil and South Africa, and sheds light on linkages between ageing, well-being and development in developing countries broadly.
The study found that on average, levels of well-being in low income households in which an older person resides in Brazil and South Africa improved between 2002 and 2008, due to a combination of economic growth and enlightened social policies. Social pension income, specifically, contributed significantly to the well-being and economic inclusion of older people, and household poverty reduction. Interestingly, South Africa and Brazil have the most expansive social pension programmes of all developing countries.
With the right policies in place, a developing country can thus significantly improve the wellbeing of its older citizens – particularly if they receive a social pension. The provision of a basic income by the state to eligible individuals (eligibility is based on age, and a means test of income and assets) has been shown moreover to foster development broadly. Local economies, in rural areas in particular, are boosted through consumption of the income. The majority of pension beneficiaries in these countries reside in multi-generational households and all household members benefit from shared income. In South Africa, grandmothers use part of the income to school, clothe and feed grandchildren, while some of the income may be used to start a small business to increase household income.
Ideally, social pension programmes should be operated in tandem with other government intervention, such as comprehensive public health care – which is the case in both Brazil and South Africa. While the study found that social assistance had made a strong contribution to poverty reduction and equity overall, stronger outcomes in Brazil demonstrated that it is likely to be most effective when accompanied by, and embedded in, inclusive growth and employment policies. 
The research outcome is instructive for policy makers in the developing world, where populations are ageing far more rapidly than occurred in the developed world. The governments of developing countries moreover have far fewer resources that their developed world counterparts with which to meet older citizens’ basic living needs. The majority of developing nations are still battling to curb endemic poverty and to combat communicable diseases. Relatively few of these countries have social pension programmes in place, or else the benefits paid are wholly inadequate and coverage is poor. In most cases these countries’ citizens were too poor to provide financially for old age.
The researchers contend that the renewal of social contracts and democratisation in developing countries will shape the growth of social assistance as a means of reducing poverty and inequality in the future. But while growth in the reach of social assistance is important, so too is a shift in paradigm, towards a stronger focus on households, a productivist/developmental perspective and greater inclusion. 
The research offers lessons for the developed world as well. In many highly industrialised countries, thinking is increasingly that the state should provide only a minimal pension. The study outcome suggests that these governments may indeed want to consider the wider social value of decent social pension provision to poor older citizens.
 Ageing, well-being and development: A comparative study of Brazil and South Africa. Armando Barrientos, University of Manchester. NDA Findings 6. October 2011.
 Monica Ferreira. Personal communication. University of Cape Town, South Africa. February 2012.
 Valerie Moller. Personal communication. Rhodes University, South Africa. February 2012.