When kids go hungry: COVID-19 relief grant misses the mark for children

When kids go hungry: COVID-19 relief grant misses the mark for childrenMothers in the farming community of Klapmuts in the Winelands region, fear for the future and feeding their families after the top-up to the child support grant ended. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
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As October ended, so did the caregiver top-up of the Child Support Grant (CSG).

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, in his medium term budget speech delivered in Parliament last month, said government will not extend this grant top-up of R500. This top-up applied to each caregiver with children who receive the CSG. The CSG currently sits at R450 per child, per month. The top-up added R500 per caregiver, not per child.

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Government did however extend the COVID-19 Special Relief of Distress (SRD) grant, which amounts to R350 per month, until the end of January 2021. Only persons who are unemployed, are not grant recipients and do not receive any other form of income are eligible for the SRD grant.

Over 13 million children in the country benefit from the CSG, compared to about 6 million beneficiaries of the SRD grant.

Working-age women

“Most of the 7.1 million caregivers who receive the [CSG] are working-age women who are unemployed or extremely poor. But they may not apply for the COVID-19 grant for themselves. If they try to apply, they will be automatically kicked out as ineligible because they will appear as grant beneficiaries on the system, even though the grants they receive are intended for the children in their care,” says Katharine Hall, a Senior Researcher with the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute.

People can only apply for the SRD grant if they are not recipients of any other grant, unemployment insurance benefit, NSFAS student funding, or have any sort of income. This means the caregivers of over 13 million children are not eligible for the grant.

The move to end the CSG top-up also left some children with questions.

“The government paid extra money to parents, and it helped them to purchase extra groceries [that] they needed. I believe it was taken away and I don’t feel it is fair towards those who really needed it. Why can’t government just continue paying the grant money to the people as lots of them need it,” says 15-year-old Saadiq, a reporter at RX Radio, Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital’s radio station.

Spotlight approached the National Treasury and the Department of Social Development for comment on the decision to stop the caregiver grant, as well as the impact this may have on women and children. The Department of Social Development declined to respond and referred questions to national Treasury. At treasury, Spotlight was told they simply implemented a cabinet decision.

Cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams subsequently referred Spotlight’s query back to the Department of Social Development.

Director-general in National Treasury, Dondo Mogajane. PHOTO: GCIS

In an earlier report published in GroundUp, the director-general national Treasury, Dondo Mogajane in an affidavit in the Black Sash court application, made it clear the top-up was never meant to be permanent and was only implemented during the hard lockdown as most economic activity came to a standstill. Since May, he said, the economy has re-opened, and the situation has changed. Mogajane also stressed that the Minister of Finance cannot unilaterally just declare a new social protection security without the Minister of Social Development. Parliament will also have to approve this. Extending the top-up for three months would cost an estimated R10,9 billion, and there is no additional funding available for this.

Mothers fear for the future of their families

Meanwhile, as the holiday season draws near, in Klapmuts a group of women from the community-based organisation Ubuntu Rural Women and Youth Movement are unsure how they will feed their children without the top-up grant and without work. Farming communities like those in and around Klapmuts faced severe job losses during lockdown, and women are among those hardest hit.

Sophie Pietersen, a mother in Klapmuts, tells Spotlight that without the top-up grant she will be stuck in a cycle of debt. During the lockdown when there was no food at home, Pietersen would purchase food from others on credit, promising to pay the money back. Without the top-up, she will only have enough money to pay off her debt from previous months, leaving her without money for food. Pietersen depends on food parcels and community soup kitchens organised by Ubuntu Rural, and is not eligible for the SRD grant.

Sophie Pietersen, from Klapmuts lost her job during lockdown and now depends on soup kitchens and food parcels to feed her family. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

“Women are suffering in Klapmuts,” says Aziza Bahati-Ibolwa, one of Ubuntu Rural’s leaders in the community. “R450 per month is an insult to momma,” she says. Without the top-up, and ineligible for the SRD, this group of women will not be able to provide their children with any presents or treats in December.

“Lockdown brought us to our knees,” says Yvonne Daniels. Daniels is a single parent who used to clean houses three times a week. She lost her job as a result of the lockdown.

Another RX Radio reporter, 11-year-old Naseerah, believes that caregivers should be able to receive the SRD grant. “The cost of living is high and the child support grant is not sufficient to support their needs,” she says. Mujahid (19), also a RX Radio reporter, agrees. “In today’s life the economy is weak and things are really expensive and most times parents and caregivers can just provide the children with the bare minimum of the basic needs which they require.”

SRD grant misses the mark for children

This year the food poverty line, a cost-of-living measurement used by Statistics South Africa, was set at R585 per person per month. At R450 per month, the CSG is well below the food poverty line.

Aziza Bahati-Ibolwa, a community leader in Klapmuts, says the child support grant of R450 per month is an insult to mothers. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight

For parents like Eva van Wyk who no longer receive the CSG since her children are now too old, the SRD money does not go very far. Van Wyk stays in Elsenburg and must pay for private transport to Klapmuts, which is 10kms away and then take a taxi to the post office a further 35kms from Klapmuts. There are no taxis where Van Wyk lives. Van Wyk says that a return trip to the post office to collect the grant money is R150 each way, leaving only R50 for food.

Hall says the SRD grant is not effective at reaching children, rather it may only help by adding additional income into a larger family. “The evidence so far is that this grant is skewed towards men, and largely not to households with children,” she says.

“The research [is] correct that the R350 grant was skewed towards men,” says Lumka Oliphant, spokesperson for the Department of Social Development. “But, this was a group that has not been able to access social assistance. However, this grant is the smallest grant relative to other grants, considering that the majority of our existing grant beneficiaries are female,” she explains. “These grants continue to be paid monthly and will not end even beyond the state of national disaster. When you view the social assistance system holistically, the gender balance still favours women with a 68% [to] 32% gender split.”

Noting the top-up grant’s importance during this time, the Black Sash Trust brought an urgent court application to prevent the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) from discontinuing the top-up, but on 28 October the application was struck from the roll in the North Gauteng High Court. Judge Nana Makhubele ruled the matter was not urgent.

Black Sash’s founding affidavit states Sassa has provided no reasons for terminating the caregiver grant, and their conduct is “not rational and unfairly discriminatory”.

No clear explanation

When Spotlight approached Sassa for comment on the decision to stop the caregiver grant top-up, spokesperson Omphemetse Molopyane asked, “Why do you guys keep calling [Sassa], when the President said [the caregiver grant] was for six months.” Another Sassa spokesperson, Paseka Letsati, referred Spotlight back to the Department of Social Development and the Presidency. By the time of publication, there was no response from the Presidency.

As a result of this cabinet decision, Hall warns that children and their caregivers will be left substantially poorer, and families and children will be plunged deeper into poverty. “Clearly, the CSG, small as it is, will need to be shared more broadly in households where caregivers cannot support themselves. It will not be enough to go around,” she says.

Adding to this, Hall says that while South Africa is seeing higher rates of hunger during this time, there are serious risks of eroding the longer-term impacts of the CSG. “Much of the evidence about the positive effects of the CSG on children’s nutritional and health outcomes, on educational attendance and learning outcomes, and even on adolescent risk behaviour, shows that these outcomes rely on sustained access to the CSG from an early age.”

Increase CSG to food poverty line

As an immediate solution, Hall says the CSG must at least be increased to meet the food poverty line.

“It will not help to have saved money at this time by depriving a generation of children of the basic support they need to survive and develop. It is easily done. The regulations already allow for the minister (of Social Development) to determine the amount of the grant. It can be effected by SASSA immediately. It is a matter of budget trade-offs, and of course there are many claims on the budget but the survival of children cannot be traded away.”

**When kids go hungry is a six-part series looking at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown on the nutritional status of children in South Africa. This series is supported by Media Monitoring Africa as part of the 2020 Isu Elihle Awards.

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