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Social grants: A hand up, not a hand-out

- Beth Amato

The child support grant and proposed pregnancy grant give children a healthier start in life and make democratic and economic sense.

ATM, money and economy | Curiosity 17: #Democracy ©

When Covid-19 tore holes in the already flimsy social fabric of communities across South Africa, the government introduced a Social Relief of Distress grant for those in acute crisis. It supplemented the existing social grants and highlighted that the government could execute its social protection and constitutional mandate.                                                 

While the small amount of R350 is far below the national poverty line threshold of R1 058 per person per month (as of May 2023), cash transfers alleviated extreme poverty, says Thokozile Madonko, a Southern Centre for Inequality Studies researcher.

“Covid revealed that people had little to fall back on. Suddenly, there were people without money and the government could cover the basic minimum in response to a disaster,” she says.

Social security and economic activity

Section 27 of the Constitution mandates the state to afford everyone the right to receive social security. It also obliges the state to take reasonable measures to help people attain this right.

Ultimately, cash transfers should counter poverty and inequality, and protect children, older people, and those with disabilities.

Madonko says that financial grants allow people to be more economically active. “If everyone received a grant despite their income, they could begin to play a meaningful part in the economy and engage as democratic citizens,” she says.

Moreover, evidence from a basic income grant project piloted in Namibia showed that a monthly cash grant of N$100 per person each month had multiplier effects – it reduced child malnutrition, increased attendance in schools, and enhanced economic activity. Women could also move away from risky work.

In South Africa, the real value of social grants is decreasing because of the exorbitant cost-of-living, but they continue to play a role in alleviating poverty, particularly in female-headed households.

“Basic cash injections are certainly useful in the context of the multiple crises humanity faces and the changing nature of work,” says Madonko.

A future beyond the first 1 000 days

Professor Susan Goldstein, Managing Director in the South African Medical Research Council Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science, explains that most social grant recipients are poor black households in urban areas, where women and children are the most vulnerable.

“Pregnant women in these households, for example, can’t afford to buy nutritious food or seek antenatal care. A baby’s first 1 000 days [from conception to their second birthday] is a critical period of development in ensuring that they are later able to reach their full potential. Should stunting as a result of under nutrition occur, major social and health effects are felt later on. This costs the individual their health and future, and costs the government billions in healthcare spending,” she says.

Vulnerable groups in South Africa include these women and children, as well as those with disabilities, and the aged.

Professor Imraan Valodia, Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, strongly supports the Older Persons Grant because it plays a vital role in social security, and the economic benefits are clear.

He says that the Child Support Grant is also critical. “If a child under six isn’t getting the right nutrition, it’s almost impossible to recover from that later in life,” he says.

Pushing for a pregnancy grant

A pregnancy grant, not yet available in South Africa, could address child development concerns.

Goldstein refutes claims that women fall pregnant merely to receive the State’s financial support. In fact, many needy women with children do not access the grant. Moreover, if the child grant is received, it is not spent frivolously.

Goldstein says that low-middle income countries such as India, Bangladesh, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Kenya and Brazil have introduced pregnancy grants, voucher schemes, conditional cash and nutritional support. These interventions have proven quite effective in ensuring that mothers and children can access good nutrition during and post pregnancy.

Goldstein says that globally about 41% of mothers receive a maternity benefit. In Europe this number is 80%, but in Africa, only 16% of pregnant women receive a cash transfer.

She adds, “There has to be political commitment – because the consequences of not spending this money should be taken into account. Our research shows that implementing a pregnancy grant will save the government money in the long run and decrease medical costs,” says Goldstein.

The South African Law Reform Commission has proposed a pregnancy support grant to prioritise support for poor and vulnerable women.

Equity beyond the bread line

Valodia says that social grants on their own don’t profoundly impact inequality in South Africa, even though an equitable society is a pillar of democracy.

“The grants must be supplemented with other initiatives to eradicate poverty and inequality. We need to identify what can change the current trajectory. This requires creativity,” he says.

Job creation in areas like green industrial development (where there are growing opportunities) could boost household income, he says. “We have important mineral resources that are important for the energy transition. We have more than half of the global resources for manganese. How can we shape employment opportunities around this? We have a real opportunity.”

Madonko asserts that whatever is introduced should translate into access to food, economic opportunities and a safe environment. “It’s not just about the absence of poverty. It is about social support creating a life of meaning,” she says.

  • Beth Amato is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.