Covid-19

Child hunger and Covid-19

Influential coalition urges President Ramaphosa to increase child support grants

A mother carries her child in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa 29 October 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

On Friday evening, just as the sun was going down, an important letter was despatched over the internet to President Cyril Rampahosa, calling for an immediate R500-a-month increase to the child support grant for a period of six months. Such a measure, the letter states, ‘is the simplest, quickest and most effective way to get cash into millions of poor households that will otherwise face food insecurity and debilitating poverty’.

The letter is signed by more than 35 prominent organisations, most of whom work directly in the field of child care and children’s rights. They include the Children’s Institute at UCT, the Teddy Bear Clinic, the Black Sash and the Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria.

But what makes the letter unusual and gives it a particular power that government will find hard to ignore is that it is also signed by the South African representative of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund — UN agencies are normally coy about becoming directly involved in domestic politics — as well as by the president of the Medical Research Council, Dr Glenda Gray, herself an internationally respected paediatrician and researcher.

In addition, the letter is signed by a significant number of internationally respected senior academics including Professor Ann Skelton, a highly respected lawyer and a Member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

On Sunday Paula Proudlock of the Children’s Institute told Maverick Citizen that the Presidency had confirmed receipt of the letter, but asked if it had also been sent to the Department of Social Development.

She noted that a response had also been received from Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the Deputy Minister of Social Development, acknowledging receipt of the letter.

As the letter’s authors wait for a substantive response to its recommendations there is growing concern about food security, especially for children.

Even before Covid-19, South Africa had world-leading levels of child hunger and malnutrition, which has a severe impact on children’s mental and physical development. The Children’s Institute has documented and quantified how children in South Africa have a unique set of vulnerabilities to hunger and other forms of violence. Issues of child health and hunger are also documented in the annual 2019 Child Gauge published by the Children’s Institute as well as in a recent carefully researched and evidenced information brief by the Children’s Institute titled: Social Grant Increases are an Immediate and Feasible Route to Protecting Children and their Families.

In this context, there is a danger that the “shock” to economies caused by the Covid-19 lockdown will trigger these with a terrible consequence. In that respect, the estimated price tag of R40-billion for increasing the child support grant is a small price to pay. In fact, it’s probably not a choice, but a constitutional duty. By contrast, the social, developmental, health and human rights costs of piecemeal — and more complex, but less efficient — measures like food parcels (said to be the preferred approach of the Treasury and the Department of Social Development) will be very much greater.

After inquiries by Maverick Citizen we were able to establish that the Treasury is meeting on Monday with a number of academics, activists and the Department of Social Development to discuss options for ensuring food security for children. However, which academics and activists have been invited or whether this will include any of the authors of the letter is unknown.

Maverick Citizen understands that over the next few days the Presidency and Cabinet will be considering a range of interventions to provide social relief in the context of Covid–19 lock-down. One of these is the CSG increase, along with others such as food parcels and income support for adults aged 18 to 59.

These possible interventions are not alternatives but are being considered as components of a possible package. However children’s rights advocates argue that the intervention that could be activated the earliest is the CSG increase due to its existing beneficiary base and the SASSA payment system; whereas the others will take longer to reach all people in need as the beneficiary base still needs to be registered and distribution systems designed.

Watch this space. Maverick Citizen will track this issue carefully. After all, in the words of the Constitution:

“A child’s best interests are of paramount importance in every matter concerning the child.”  DM/MC

The full text of the letter is published below.

3 April 2020

Dear President Cyril Ramaphosa,

Increase the CSG to protect families and the economy

We, a group of concerned academics, civil society leaders and other development partners, appeal to you to consider our call for an urgent increase to the value of the Child Support Grant (CSG) by R500 for a period of six months. This measure is critical to mitigate the impact on children and families of the lockdown and the current and future economic shocks created by Covid-19. The CSG is the simplest, quickest and most effective way to get cash into millions of poor households that will otherwise face food insecurity and debilitating poverty.

The lockdown is important to contain the virus, but it will increase poverty and unemployment.

International experience suggests that a lockdown is the best response to the virus from a public health perspective, but the economic impacts are devastating for South African households. South Africa already has very high rates of poverty, unemployment and inequality, and the effects of lockdown on work and earnings threaten to exacerbate all these dynamics.

A team of experts commissioned to work on an economic response to Covid-19 has been modelling the possible effects of the lockdown on the informal sector specifically, and the spin-off effects for poverty levels. They estimate that, for households that rely on income from the informal labour market, food poverty rates could more than double over the three weeks of the lockdown period. As the depth of poverty increases more people will go hungry, including millions of children.

Other forms of support have been withdrawn. Before the lockdown over 10 million children were receiving nutritious meals through the school nutrition programme and early childhood development programmes. The closure of schools and early childhood development facilities mean families with children will need to provide more nutritious meals.

Pre-regulation food price increases have swallowed families’ budgets and forced shoppers to buy less nutritious food

A project that monitors food prices found that the cost of a low-income household food basket increased substantially over the first three weeks of March, as the pandemic unfolded in the country. Over the whole month, the cost of the food basket increased by 7%, or R220. This increase alone is equivalent to half the value of the monthly child support grant. The same report notes shifts in purchasing patterns to less nutritious food.

Social grants are an extremely effective mechanism for protecting children and families against the effects of poverty

By the end of March 2020, 84 countries had introduced or adapted social protection and jobs programmes in response to Covid-19. The most widely used intervention was social assistance (non-contributory cash transfers). SASSA cannot enrol new beneficiaries into the social grant system during lockdown because the required verification and biometric requirements cannot be completed. The quickest and simplest way to channel much-needed cash into poor households is via existing beneficiaries.

The child support grant (CSG) is well established. It is by far the biggest grant in terms of numbers, reaching 12.8 million children – nearly two thirds of all children in South Africa. It is received every month by over seven million adult beneficiaries, and contributes to the income of nearly 5.7 million households. Although child support grants are meant to be spent directly on the children to whom they are allocated, they effectively become part of household budgets and help to support entire households. Therefore increasing this grant is likely to benefit other members of the household.

The economic insecurity and poverty-related stresses and anxiety caused by the pandemic directly contribute to increases in violence against women and children. In addition to reducing hunger, economic strengthening will be protective of women and children.

Complementary measures 

        • Registration for SROD of vulnerable households not already receiving grants, including unemployed youth and adults in households without social grants, and new mothers with babies who cannot be registered due to all new birth registrations being on hold during the lockdown. Increasing the cash available for existing grant beneficiaries will place less demand on SROD.
        • More cash without addressing congestion at big retailers, in taxis and social grant payment queues is not effective. We therefore recommend that SASSA restructure its payment system to ensure that grants are transferred into beneficiaries’ accounts in a staggered manner.
        • Subsidising selected highly nutritious foods.
        • Now that lockdown regulations have been amended to allow informal traders of food to continue to trade, extra cash in the hands of CSG beneficiaries will not only increase the ability of poor households to buy nutritious fresh produce, but will also help to reduce the congestion in taxis and at big retailers; and stimulate the local economies of townships and rural areas.

This measure is urgent. We the undersigned call on you to consider this critical issue at the next meeting of the Cabinet or National Command Council.

Yours faithfully,

The signatories

 

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