Time to tackle poverty with a basic income grant, increased child support grant

A young girl trapped in conditions of poverty
A young girl trapped in conditions of poverty

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

These are the famous words of former president Nelson Mandela.

These words seem to be South Africa’s timeless story.

At times we have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges but we have managed to find solutions and succeeded.

Our 1994 peaceful transition to democracy must be our greatest achievement. But there are others.

In the run up to the 2010 World Cup some sceptics were openly scouring the earth for a fallback host, but the country found the gumption and resources to build five new stadiums and pull off a successful event.

Now we are forced to face a global health emergency with risks of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis – while our economy is weak and our financial credibility is regarded as junk.

The remarkable story is seeing a capable state in action.

Lurking beneath the ideological paralysis and lethargy that has characterised our government, a capable state has revealed itself.

In less than two weeks our police services arrested over 2 000 people for breaking the law, cities are finding shelter for homeless people (although some in a dreadfully inhumane way), informal settlements are getting water from tankers with a permanent supply to informal communities planned, primary health care workers are conducting door-to-door testing and overcrowded settlements are being promised rehousing.

Health, water, sanitation, housing are crises.

The capable state is our right and none of us should accept anything less than lasting solutions when this lockdown is over.

The impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus and lockdown on our struggling economy, small and large businesses, and job security is well known.

Experts have already calculated that the cost of food increased R220 a basket since the lockdown was announced – despite the swift action to prevent price-gouging.

There is little or no money circulating through our economy and in a country with high unemployment and high poverty numbers we are facing an overwhelming poverty catastrophe.

The SA Reserve Bank has estimated that 370 000 jobs will be lost during the lockdown and thousands of informal trading businesses, which generate survival incomes, have already been destroyed.

Nearly half of South African adults live in poverty and 60% of children live in households that survive below the poverty line.

The majority of people in our country are facing starvation and malnutrition.

Our social grant system provides support at two ends of our life cycles.

The child grant supports children under 18 and the state pension those over the age of 60.

These social grants play a life-saving role in providing income to destitute households and some alleviation from extreme poverty.

Now academics and economists have written to President Cyril Ramaphosa to call for an urgent intervention against the looming poverty crisis – proposing an immediate increase to the child support grant from R440 to R940 per month.

There is an online petition calling for South Africans to support this proposal and I urge you to do so (https://awethu.amandla.mobi).

Experts have already calculated that the cost of food increased R220 a basket since the lockdown was announced – despite the swift action to prevent price-gouging.

That increase is half the current child support grant.

In low-income areas access to food is a hardship. Supermarket penetration is sparse and they don’t fully cater for the communities’ food shopping needs.

This is why most households will also purchase fresh food from informal traders.

Unfortunately informal trading was shut down by the lockdown.

A comprehensive approach to address our devastating poverty must include a basic income grant to support those who have absolutely no income.

Last week the regulations were amended to allow informal food trade but some municipalities, like City of Cape Town, have been slow to implement them.

This cuts off families from convenient access to fresh produce and shuts down survival income for traders.

Poor families are facing protracted periods of food insecurity and the fastest way to alleviate this is to increase the child support grant – getting more money into destitute households and flowing through the economy, formal and informal.

Our government appears energised to defeat the coronavirus, drawing on a sense of solidarity and urgency, and getting things that once seemed impossible, done.

Now is the opportunity to harness that leadership to tackle our most serious and persistent crisis: pervasive poverty.

The first step must be to increase the child support grant to substitute for any loss of income and to support destitute families.

Then we have to decisively deal with those stuck in poverty: unemployed and without any income whatsoever.

It is unfathomable that millions of South Africans have zero income.

They are of working age but there aren’t enough jobs and they don’t qualify for a child grant or state pension.

Our country cannot make progress for as long as millions of adults, mostly young adults, exist day to day with no work and no money.

A comprehensive approach to address our devastating poverty must include a basic income grant to support those who have absolutely no income.

It is unconscionable, and probably unconstitutional, for us not to.

Research conducted in 2002, for our social development department, found that a R100 per month basic income grant could reduce poverty by 76% and over the years economists have proposed numerous models for how this can be funded.

The work has been done; we just need the will to do it.

It feels like we’ve hit rock bottom and we are re-evaluating the state of our nation, and what we need to do to truly fix it.

We cannot ignore our poverty crisis.

We must make sure we address pervasive poverty with an immediate increase to the child support grant and the introduction of a basic income grant. It will seem impossible until it is done.

. Brett Herron, Secretary General of GOOD and Member of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature

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