About 15m South Africans, at least 11m of whom are children, receive state social grants each year, and this number is expected to rise considerably amid plans to extend the safety net to more vulnerable children.
In April the child support grants, which amount to R260/child, were extended to include children in poor households up to the age of 16, and this is expected to be extended to 17-year-olds in the next budget cycle.
Expenditure on grants makes up about 3,2% of GDP and this will increase to 3,5% as more dependants are included.
Budget estimates show that SA will be spending about R89bn in the current financial year, raising worrying questions as to whether this is sustainable in the face of growing unemployment and deepening poverty across SA.
Critics of the grant system fear that extending its reach even further is creating a culture of dependency, leaving a swathe of the population uninterested in seeking gainful employment.
But a number of recent research studies have shown that grants have had a strong effect in reducing poverty, especially in households that receive child support grants.
And according to Leila Patel
, professor and director at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa
, far from encouraging unemployment, social grants have actually improved the capacity of women, especially, to go out and look for work.
“Child support grants make up one of the fastest-growing areas of government social protection, which is why there are questions about their sustainability,” says Patel. “But the other side of this question is whether the current levels of poverty are sustainable.”
Patel’s centre has just completed one of the most detailed studies of the effects of child support grants in poor communities. Residents of the Doornkop area near Soweto were surveyed in an extensive investigation.
Though the full results of that study are expected to be released only early next year, Patel says the preliminary findings reveal insightful snippets of the effects of these grants on poor households and serve as a snapshot of conditions in other, similar communities around the country.
Doornkop is one of the poorest municipal areas in Gauteng, and consists of small brick houses and a number of informal dwellings.
According to the study, at least 85% of households with children under 15 years survived on less than R2500/month in the period covered. Unemployment was so high that only 13% of the residents had a job with regular income.
Most households surveyed received one or two child support grants and even though the value was small, 65% of the people in Doornkop said they would not have been able to survive without them.
“The view is that people are lazy and that because of the grants, they don’t work,” says Patel.
“But the grants are so small that it is not a logical incentive to withdraw from the employment and labour market. It has to be supplemented by other means if [families] are to survive.”
A striking feature of the findings is that a large number of children do not have their fathers living with them and that all the major decisions about how best to spend and supplement the grants are made by women.
“Many people argue that grants are a passive instrument, but our economy is just not creating jobs for people [to support themselves],” says Patel. “This is a fact of life in SA.”
At least two other studies in as many years — one of which was conducted jointly by the Human Sciences Research Council and Oxford University in the UK — have found that the majority of unemployed people still have a strong attachment to the labour market. They would much rather work than be supported by the state.
This study found that there is no evidence to support the claims that there is a culture of dependency among people not working.
It found that rather than a lack of motivation or of the desire to work, structural conditions in the labour market and the economy are to blame for unemployment.