Much of the focus on old age grant (OAG) recipients has understandably dealt with the system’s problems during the lockdown and there have been changes to the administration of the OAG. But deeper consequences of the precarious position of many pension-headed households in South Africa are more alarming and require immediate attention.
The OAG pays R1,780 per month to more than three million people over the age of 60. When located within the broader economic and welfare system, specifically in the absence of social grants for working-age, able-bodied adults, old age grants are often the main source of income in poorer households. As such, the income is redistributed within multi-generational households, in which up to two thirds of children live. The reliance on the old age grant for many households in South Africa cannot be exaggerated and this is only set to increase during this pandemic.
Consider the following example drawn from a wider research study on flows of financial and practical support in multigenerational households in South Africa:
In a four-generation household comprising six persons (five adults and one child), there are three sources of income: the OAG received by the great grandmother (aged 72), a child support grant for the two-year-old and the 25-year-old mother, who works in a call centre and who receives R4,500 per month. Three of the adults in the house, a 53-year-old grandmother, a 51-year-old man and a 22-year-old man, have no income.
Before the pandemic, the household income was R6,725 per month and the normal expenditure was R6,100 per month. Following the lockdown, the household income has been reduced to R2,225 and the household expenditure has been reduced to R2,700 (which covers bare minimum food, nappies, electricity, rent and the need for public transport and creche fees has been reduced).
The great grandmother will continue to receive the OAG, but the mother was told by her employer that she has to take unpaid leave until the end of three-week lockdown, which later became a five-week lockdown. She will not get paid in April and is not sure if she will have a job when the lockdown ends. This household is not unique and it is not the worst affected.
OAG recipients, as an age cohort, are very vulnerable to the consequences of Covid-19 for several reasons.
Firstly, if they contract the virus, they are at higher risk of developing a more serious illness. They will require more care and even hospitalisation. In such instances, and in the absence of any emergency relief directed to vulnerable households, who will make up for the loss of the income?
Secondly, with more people in the family losing the income and/or jobs, more family members may come to rely on the OAG. What tensions will arise in households when more people become dependent on the OAG and how will the OAG recipient manage this?
Thirdly, it might increase the number of dependents relying on the OAG and more people may be drawn physically to the OAG-receiving households in need of food and support. A greater number of people living in a household may put the older person at greater risk.
Finally, older persons in households are often key or primary caregivers in a context of high levels of (female) migration, HIV crises and low marriage rates. This is true in many households and is not limited to skip-generational households or pension-headed households.
If we think about the retail sector and who is looking after the dependents of the employees, we know that older persons are often the caregivers of young children whose parents are at work. Given the fact that older persons are encouraged to self-isolate, especially from younger persons and grandchildren, who are alleged to be invisible carriers that may spread the virus, how can care be re-configured in such contexts, in up to 12 million households where multi-generational living is practiced?
Considering the economic and social contribution of older persons to South African households, the government would do well to consider how the pandemic threat, with all its specificities, will heighten the caring and financial needs in pension-headed households.
In the longer term, we need to consider how the government will support pension-dependant households if they lose the OAG due to the loss of the older person. As the number of deaths in South Africa are estimated to reach between 190,000 and 240, 000, we could estimate that a large percentage of the victims would include persons over 60 years old who receive the old age grant. This will have a catastrophic impact on families.
There have been two major calls for government to support vulnerable households.
A leading group of economists have called for greater economic support, particularly at the household level. They put forward the suggestion of a Covid-19 grant, a top-up to existing grants and/or a universal basic income grant. Another group of researchers, scholars and activists working with children have called for an increase in the child support grant, given the level of food insecurity in poorer households.
Both calls deserve support. In addition, I would argue that the OAG should remain in place for up to six months following the death of a recipient.
The pandemic has uncovered pitfalls in a welfare system that does not support able-bodied, working-age adults and relies on older persons to carry a significant burden of care for many dependents. It is too early to gauge the extent of the care crises that will unfold at the familial level, but the government needs to consider what supports to put in place to alleviate caregiving responsibilities that older persons carry and what financial shock-absorbers to instate should the death rate of older people begin to rise. DM/MC
Elena Moore is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town.
The second part of this series will focus on the gendered and racialised nature of familial care that will be magnified in the wake of the pandemic. The third article examines the change in family responsibilities in multi-generational households since the lockdown.
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