This paper draws together some preliminary thoughts on the emerging character of low paid work. It outlines the various ways that household incomes for poor people are uncertain, due to a combination of high unemployment, low wages, and high labour ‘turnover’. The paper points to a combination of contributors to precarious livelihoods, particularly the changing industrial structure which has been shifting from resources to services since the 1970s. There are substantial implications for the role of the state, where it seeks to reduce both unemployment and poverty. The very low wages currently paid means that reducing unemployment does not have the kind of impact on poverty that would have been thought. To halve unemployment and poverty, the paper finds that it would be necessary to have minimum wages and standards, as well as social grants. These two policies are already in place: the critical point is that they will be needed as part of an overall livelihoods strategy that will be needed even at full employment. The paper also shows that important decisions are still required about budget choices and trade-offs. In particular, many of the interventions that plug employment shortfalls are extremely costly: almost any scenario for halving unemployment needs a commitment to create about 0.5 to 1 million EPWP jobs a year; an expansion in the public service by about 3.5% a year, in a context where there are also legitimate demands for salary increases; continued social grants; employment subsidies; and so forth. Achieving objectives for growth, employment and service delivery are likely to require more active participation of organised labour and civil society groupings. This is partly to enable ‘voice’, partly to enable the identification of on-the-ground service delivery innovations, but also for active participation in the actual delivery of services.