Covid-19 holds classes for the way forward for social safety, and little one help grants

Food security experts in South Africa warned early on that the lockdown to the spread of Covid-19 would endanger children’s diets. Before the pandemic broke out, a third of South Africa’s 20 million children were living in households below the food poverty line.

The lockdown led to further food insecurity and hunger. The food crisis wasn’t about a national food shortage or a failure in distribution – stores stayed open and there was food on the shelves.

Instead, it was a crisis of poverty exacerbated by the loss of household labor income. It took a few months before the effects on households and children could be quantified.

The first round of a survey on national income dynamics (NIDS-CRAM) revealed massive job losses: in April around 3 million people were less employed than in February. Two million of those who have lost their jobs have been women.

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Almost half of those surveyed said their households ran out of money to buy groceries in April, and 15% of those living in households with children said they were hungry for children. This was the case even though most of these households received at least one child benefit.

The food security of over 9 million children was further undermined when schools closed and the school feeding program ceased. This placed a greater strain on the resources of the caregivers who had to replace the lost meals.

In a ruinous twist, food prices also rose significantly.

Inadequacy of the social protection program

South Africa’s extensive social assistance program transfers nearly 18 million grants to low-income and vulnerable people each month. Analysis of the status quo prior to the lockdown showed that the child benefit grant was well targeted to households most vulnerable to the effects of the lockdown, including 80% of those in informal worker households.

Child benefit is the poorest of all scholarships because of its low means test. It also has the widest reach and is paid to over 7 million caregivers to support nearly 13 million children. However, it was not possible to protect children and their households from shock.

Covid-19 increased the inequalities and weaknesses that already existed and drew attention to gaping holes in the safety net. That included the fact that child support – R440 per month in 2020, roughly $ 70 purchasing power parity – wasn’t enough to meet a child’s nutritional needs.

The crisis was also at the forefront of the total lack of social allowances for adults of working age (unless they had a disability), regardless of the structural conditions that affected their lives.

There was some temporary relief in the form of a disaster relief package. It included an increase in child benefit of R300 for just one month and a top-up of R250 on top of the other existing grants for six months. It also included a new Nursing Allowance of R 500 for five months and a Social Allowance Allowance of R 350 per month for working-age adults who were unemployed and received no other allowance.

The disaster relief package should last until October 2020. The October medium-term budgetary policy statement included provisions for the extension of the emergency social assistance grant, and a further extension was announced by the President in February.

But there were loopholes. The increase in the grant was not extended after October, nor was the grant for the carer. Caregivers who received child benefit for their children were excluded from applying for social assistance allowance for themselves.

UN human rights organizations have recommended that families with children be given priority in material aid programs. However, there is no disaster relief for caregivers. There is no allowance for them in child benefit and there is no recourse to the Covid-19 scholarship if the caregiver is unemployed.

This is an impossible paradox and a criminal offense for working-age caregivers, the vast majority of whom are women.

Women were over-represented among those who lost their jobs or were on leave in 2020. They were also under-represented in the existing support mechanisms for workers who had lost their jobs because they were less likely than men to be employed in the formal sector.

The social relief of the emergency grant, however, was disproportionately taken up by men, precisely because women who received child allowances could not apply for it.

The same rule does not apply to elderly caregivers who receive the Elderly Scholarship. Almost one million pensioners also receive child benefit. The system recognizes that both the elderly caregiver and child need income support – they are not expected to receive a single grant.

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Child hunger and malnutrition

Authors of the South African Child Gauge 2020 describe the invisible, cumulative and devastating effects of chronic malnutrition as a form of “slow violence”. Poor nutrition inhibits children’s growth and limits their chances in life.

A quarter of children under five are too young for their age due to chronic malnutrition. That number hasn’t changed much in the past two decades. Despite its large scope, the small child benefit could not reduce the persistently high stunt rates.

The National Income Dynamics survey tracked measures to address hunger among adults and children in 2020.

The pattern is clear: there was a dramatic spike in hunger in the first few months of lockdown, some of which was alleviated by July and August. However, after the top-up and the nurse grant ended, these improvements were reversed. The hunger for children increased despite loose lockdown regulations and a certain improvement in employment figures.

What is needed?

Since grant adjustments were made last year as part of urgent disaster relief, there was little time for a systematic process to examine political options. There is no evidence that the proposed adjustments were subjected to a gender analysis or an impact analysis on children before decisions were made.

It is time to move from gradual, temporary and inadequate disaster relief to adequate social protection for all.

One of the strengths of the child benefit grant is that it is required by law as a permanent grant at normal times, not just during a disaster, and therefore cannot be taken away. The Covid-19 Emergency Social Aid Scholarship is a temporary disaster relief grant. It can be reduced or discontinued at any time, as was done with the nursing staff allowance.

This results in three recommendations:

1. The government must invest in increasing child benefit.

2. The Covid-19 grant for social relief must be converted into a permanent (legally required) grant for income support for adults.

3. The income subsidy must be made available to unemployed carers, including those receiving the child benefit subsidy.

From the point of view of child health and development, an increase in the value of the child benefit subsidy is of decisive importance – if not at the level of the other subsidies, then at least at the limit of food poverty as a minimum. This needs to be complemented by nutritional and mental health support programs for pregnant women and by improvements in service delivery to ensure early access to child benefit.

Addressing the ongoing burden of malnutrition is an urgent imperative. It will be costly in the short term, but if not done it will be too costly for children, their families, and the country in the long term.

The budget announcement will contain important clues as to the direction of government investment. Children and the women who look after them can no longer be told to tighten their belts.

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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