We need to change how we think (and talk) about social grants

| Gabrielle Kelly
Pensioners queue to collect social grants at SASSA in Athlone.

On September 30, the government announced the second increase this year in disability grants, old age pensions, care dependency grants and war veterans’ pensions. These increases will come in addition to the child support grant and grant-in-aid increases, which were already budgeted for in March. Although the increase is only R10, it will equate to a R41 million increase in government spending per month.

The move is likely to be welcomed by the large number of unemployed people in South Africa, many of whom rely on social grants as their main source of income and live on incomes of less than R1000 per month.

Middle class taxpayers seem less pleased, as seen in comments on online news sites. Some are particularly unpleasant: “If you are a winner earning more than R5000 then why should you be penalised and have to fork over money to losers?… It is unsustainable, that is why they have no toilets. The money is already gone - nada - gone! Think about it!”

“Let evolution take its course. Why should we pay for losers?”

“Those child welfare grants will cost SA R32.5 billion this year. And that’s only at R260 a month (which is basically nothing), but still a big enough incentive for people to keep on buggering each other. And now we hear that it’ll increase by another million by next year.”

“Africa, the only place where laziness is handsomely rewarded.”

Although these comments don’t reflect the views of all middle class South Africans, I regularly hear people criticise social grant recipients in a way that not only indicates a disturbing lack of empathy and desire for social justice, but also a denial of the structural nature of poverty, the extent of inequality in our system, and the challenges poor people face in “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps”. Perhaps some concerns about sustainability are justified, but what is disturbing is the language and rhetoric that these “concerned” citizens draw on to discuss social grants and the amount of blame that is placed on poor and vulnerable populations who access them.

Few would dispute that creating employment and economic growth is a better solution to overcoming poverty in South Africa than social grants. Not only because providing large numbers of social grants is expensive, but because high unemployment and a lack of social assistance for the unemployed mean that many people survive off the grants of vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children and the disabled, diluting their impact on intended recipients.

In addition, because the value of grants is set well below the working wage, many people would far prefer to work than rely solely on grants. However, for various reasons many people cannot work because they are competing with millions of other poorly educated and poorly skilled South Africans for the same low-paid jobs.

Despite high unemployment and the difficulties of building a sustainable livelihood in the informal sector, there is a disturbing tendency amongst the middle class to vilify the poor for their reliance on social grants. They argue that people should be responsible for themselves and that grants create a culture of entitlement and dependency. The most common criticism of the grant system is that despite evidence to the contrary, the child support grant (CSG) encourages teenagers to literally “breed” for grants.

The problem with this argument is that social grants are not even targeted at the working population – they are targeted at children, the elderly and people with disabilities. That this money is often used to support entire households rather than the intended recipient is a structural, economic issue rather than a failing of poor individuals. It should also be noted that caregivers of children receiving the grant are not necessarily even unemployed – the CSG also supports the children of the working poor and single caregivers with an income of less than R36 000 per annum are eligible to receive the CSG 1.

Internationally, the idea of a “minimum social floor” is widely accepted and the introduction of social protection systems in developing countries is seen as a potential social and economic development revolution. Grants recognise and promote the agency of people living in poverty, enabling people to make their own decisions regarding their needs, and promote resilience and coping mechanisms. Even those who work often earn low, insecure and irregular incomes, and social grant income helps to smooth out the financial ups and downs in households whose members are eking out an existence at the edge of the labour market.

Grants can support job seeking by paying for daycare or transport for caregivers looking for jobs or to buy stock for small businesses. Research has shown that in South Africa money for social grants is typically spent on food, clothing, transport and education, and that grant recipients are in fact eager to work. Even without conditionalities in our CSG system, the CSG has resulted in outcomes similar to conditional programmes in Latin America such as reducing hunger and improving school attendance and health.

Negative views on social assistance are generally more common in established welfare states such as the US and UK, with lower unemployment rates, better access to services and higher social assistance benefits than South Africa. In these countries, stereotypes and urban legends about welfare mothers or “welfare queens” or disability benefit scroungers are common and reinforced by the media and conservative parties. Conservatives argue that social welfare programmes create dependency and promote moral corruption. Criticism of “welfare leeches” is steeped in a language of morality and blame and problematises and stigmatises welfare recipients as responsible for their own position. Of course there are a few people who try to fleece the system, but statistics show that they are in the minority both internationally and locally.

Although criticised for over-spending on grants, historically the ANC has not been a particularly strong supporter of grants, preferring job creation and public works programmes to extending or re-structuring the current system. The ANC government, especially the Treasury, have been critical of social grants. Concerned that grants create a victim mentality and dependency culture, the ANC blocked civil society campaigns for the introduction of the Basic Income Grant and the Chronic Illness Grant. However, given the failure of job creation strategies, the government has had to recognise the value of grants in staving off extreme poverty, vulnerability and probable social unrest. The DA has also recognised the necessity of social grants and recently released a Social Protection Green Paper, which supports the use of social grants to reduce poverty and promote developmental outcomes.

John Rawls proposed that if we were all brought together to decide on the principles that govern society, but had no knowledge of our individual position in the world, we would all design a system that promotes fairness and equality. Basically, if we didn’t know if we were a rich housewife or a poor child, we would want to reduce the risk that we would be among the least advantaged. While this is just a hypothetical philosophical argument, thinking in this way may be helpful in understanding the value of social grants.

Links to social grant articles online:

  1. The threshold is R72 000 for married caregivers 

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