Results of a purposive sample of the poorest are contrasted with the methods and conclusions of other research into ‘income poverty’. The deprivation suffered by an important class of rural women in South Africa is documented. Escape routes from poverty are described that have a more realistic prospect of success than those promoted in the international and South African policy literature, including the literature on land reform. The distinguishing demographic characteristics of women who have taken the first steps on these routes are analysed, together with the political context of their relative success. Escaping the worst forms of deprivation depends on women’s wages in rural labour markets, rather than their incomes from self-employment, but conventional microeconomic theory cannot explain the distribution of wages in these markets. The South African government has been unduly influenced by such conventional theories and the rhetoric of the development aid bureaucracy. It is failing to consider policies that are relevant to the poorest people.