Planning for Prosperity?

By Isobel Frye · 22 Jan 2010

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Picture: Alex Kadis
Picture: Alex Kadis

“It happens that you see it is better that the little ones eat and you can stay as you are, and there is nothing that you can do, and when the children ask why is it that mommy is not eating, you will say that you will eat after them.

My son eats tea and the crusts of the pap, he is 28 years old and he has tried to get work and vacancies are scarce.  The biggest problem is that he does not have matric and I can see when I look at him that he longs to eat like other people, but all that I can do is love him and motivate him and say that in a while it will get better but then you can see that it is hard. And then Sunday you can see he wants to have Sunday food but there is nothing you can do.”

Vosloorus Focus Group, October 2009.

Hunger has its own appetite and eats from within.  Childhood hunger stunts physical and mental growth, marking the child’s future from its cradle.

Poverty appears to be too stubborn in South Africa to ever disappear.  Too many people are living in absolute survivalist mode, spending their days searching for sufficient food and water to survive for the next day.  What policies have we adopted to really bring an end to this, and are they appropriate?  It makes little sense to someone in this situation, to people living in communities that lack disposable income, to be told that they should defeat their own destitution by becoming small business entrepreneurs?

But, alarmingly, it seems as if we, as a country, are completely okay with the fact that half of South African citizens live in poverty, with another quarter pretty much still struggling to survive. Being ranked one of the most unequal countries in the world should surely motivate people to ask what we can do to change this.

There are those that hold that education and health care are the best ways of enabling people to work their way out of poverty.  For people that are starving in the here and how, that is scant help.

So, what else can be done?

We can and must begin to accept the positive benefit and value of social grants in addressing the very basic needs of poor people as well as in providing the bedrock for development of recipients by injecting cash into poor households. For millions of people, grants are currently the only source of income providing a little relief on some days from the cruel grind of destitution. There are, however, a number of problems about grants.  

Firstly, they are not available to unemployed working age people like the son mentioned by his mother above.  This means that in the absence of available work, adults have to depend on old people and young children, which inverts social norms and undermines the very sense of self-agency required for growth and development.

Another problem linked to grants is that middle class people don’t like grants.  Grants and poor people are both blamed, often subconsciously, for the existing levels of unemployment and poverty. In considering the high levels of unemployed people living in households that receive grants, one economist claimed that this supported his theory that if someone in a house got a grant, others would give up their jobs and be lazy. Qualitative research suggests that unemployed family members gather around the granny that has the grant hoping to be able to receive some relief from her money.

But a more structural problem is that we have failed to link up our social and economic policies to enable us to multiply the returns on the state spending on social grants. Independent economists valued the discounted rate of return on a R240 monthly child support grant at between 160% and 230%. If policy makers were able to link in better school feeding for all children this would immediately improve the investment and the returns. Again, if we provide working age people with a small monthly income and get them to register for skills assessments and subsequent training and job placement, we could begin to turn the tide against the cripplingly high numbers of unskilled and destitute young people whom we have failed.

Intelligent policymaking is urgently needed. Plans need to address both immediate, medium and long-term goals. Getting the country to where we want to be will take a couple of generations, but if we don’t start now we may never get there.

Frye is director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute.

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Frosty the Snowman
22 Jan

Intelligent Policy Making

You point out how important social grants are. Then you say we need really intelligent policy-making because ... social grants are important. What? If we've already got them, middle-class attitudes notwithstanding, surely that means we had intelligent policy-making already, to make social grants available in the first place.

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22 Jan

Grants are Good

The one way for the state to alleviate poverty is to provide good nutrition at school. Most schools have large grounds that are dusty sand bowls. This could be put to use by the DAFF by starting food gardens. Training, extension services and infrastructure can be provided by the department while produce and products could be purchased by the school feeding scheme that supplies the school. This way you have created a market, created skills and employment and you have added value to the lives of all in the chain.

The quality of life of the majority of the population is such that urgent intervention is necessary. Studies in the UK has proven that overall, a basic grant improves the lives of the family especially children. A basic grant to employable people makes sense. Of course, the ideal is to create the environment for business and industry to flourish and absorb labour. This is not happening because South Africa must play to the WTO and IMF rules and open its markets for products from developing countries.

Our economy is growing on the back of feely available credit to the middleclass. This is neither sustainable nor productive in meeting our development goals and lifting people out of poverty.

The ANC government seems to think that the 2010 world cup (where temporary jobs are created) and investment in arms (where the promise of the creation of thousands of jobs didn

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5 Feb

Government Policy on Grants

Government policy on grants to children and old people is good. Beneficiaries who fall under this age category or group are seemingly unproductive and thus, solely have to depend on such grants in order to have food, which most often last only for a few days. Conversely, this implies that the active youthful and working population are exempted from this grants, and are yet those who constitute the bulk of the country's unemployed citizens. What I think should be of consideration is that the government should inject some funds to assist the active and unemployed citizens through initiatives such as skills acquisition and short learnership programmes that will enable them gain relevant skills that can guarantee them future employment. In this way, one can easily assert that the huge inequality gap might gradually be narrowed in the course of time..

28 Jan

Identify the 'Great Hearts'

Shew this problem is really so big, happening on so many levels that it is difficult to find a starting place.

What I see is that people are resources-less, destitute because there is a kind of destitution and resourcelessness we all carry around in our own psyches. Even if you have a lot of money you are often still bouncing off this destitution, desperately feeling like I need more, another success (and most likely resenting the grants from the same place). So either this situation makes you poor or greedy.

A good way to get beyond this problem is to go in and identify the natural leaders in a community, the great hearts if you like, the people who really, really care. If those people are supported, mostly by providing them with the resources they feel they need, they can pull a lot of people up with them. Often they are dedicated school teachers or health workers working in absolutely desititute conditions and they know very well how to make the absolute most of very little. I do think it is a matter of identifying these people and helping them to do what they really want to do anyway. They are already inspired and not so caught up in the problem I identified in the first paragraph and they understand the realities of the places where they live. The biggest issue is identifying them correctly but I think that is a smaller problem than we started with.

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