‘Why aren’t we investing in our future?’

The government’s failure to extend the child-support grant to all vulnerable children under the age of 18 will leave about two million children without social support for the foreseeable future.

Last month’s budget, which capped the age for children on the grant at 15 from January next year, was severely criticised by civil society. NGOs across the country argue that it ensures poor children between 15 and 18 remain trapped in their vulnerable state.

The Alliance for Children’s Entitlement to Social Security and the Legal Resources Centre are supporting grant recipient Florence Mahlangu in a court action to force the ministers of social development and finance to extend the grant to all vulnerable children below the age of 18. The matter will be heard in the Pretoria High Court this week.

Children are defined in the Constitution, in the Social Assistance Act and in the Children’s Act as all people under 18. The litigants will argue that in terms of the Social Assistance Act, the National Treasury may not give the grant solely to children under 15 or discriminate between children of different ages. It will argue the Constitution requires that all people, children included, progressively gain access to social assistance and at present there is no commitment to roll out the child-support grant to children between the ages of 15 and 18.

”Lack of access to social grants leaves [these children] vulnerable because they are often part of families already experiencing unemployment and economic hardship,” says Elroy Paulus, programme manager at NGO Black Sash. ”They are often dependent on people who cannot even support themselves.”

”We shoot ourselves in the foot if we leave our most vulnerable young people with no safety net at a point where, for many, this means having to leave school and make their own way in an economy that cannot absorb them,” says Jackie Loffell, of the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society.

Loffell says for many teens 15 is also the age when any kind of free schooling ends. ”If you are from a very poor family, the likelihood is that you will leave school in search of economic support,” she says.

The child-support grant is R220 a month and is designed to be supplementary to low-income households, says Karen Peters, a researcher at Black Sash. But because of endemic unemployment the ”value of the grant is eroded” and money that should go towards children is used to support whole families. She points out that, while both individual taxpayers and companies were given a tax break, the poorest of the poor were not given any relief.

The government continues to believe that growth of any kind predisposes access to social grants, argues Paulus. But, he says, South Africa’s economic growth serves only to increase inequality. ”A very small elite have benefited from our growth path,” he says.

The poor and underprivileged are not seeing the benefits of the country’s growing wealth, say analysts.

Researchers at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) found that ”these increases do not reflect any further reprioritisation. Grants as a share of GDP remain constant at 3,3%.”

If the child-support grants were extended to children between the ages of 15 and 18, Idasa calculates the cost to the country would be less than R10-billion by 2010/11. And this additional R10-billion would equate to a total grants expenditure of only about 3,6% of GDP.

”To have denied children this pittance, is iniquitous,” says Joan van Niekerk, director of Childline. ”What is the point of pouring money into education if children aren’t able to concentrate or even go to school?” she asks. ”If children are our future why are we not investing in that future?”

Additional reporting by Warren Foster

Manuel out of touch with poor, say NGOs
Business had plenty to gush about following Finance Minister Trevor Manuel’s budget speech. With incentives and tax breaks thrown their way, he was again hailed a miracle worker. But, writes Warren Foster, several NGOs have pointed out key areas where the minister is out of touch.

Child-support grants will increase by R20 to R220 a month by October this year, while old-age grants will increase by R70 to R940 in April.

Peters, of Black Sash, described the budget as a ”token to poor people” and said the increases in social grants were modest. ”It would be foolish to assume that the meagre increase … will help poor families stay on top of the increasing food and fuel prices.”

Ebrahim Fakir, senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies, said that ”[while] one cannot fault the R12-billion expenditure increases for social grants … it seems as if some of these might not keep pace with inflationary pressures”.

Rama Naidu, executive director of the Democracy Development Programme, said: ”One wonders if the minister is really in touch with the poor of this country and how much it takes to bring up a child so that the child has a decent meal and is able to access rights such a schooling.”

A poverty-level index will be introduced by Statistics South Africa in three weeks’ time to measure and monitor poverty in the country. Naidu warned that the index needs to be measured through proper consultation and should be used to understand and enable action to redress poverty ”in a pragmatic way”.

Skills and jobs
Naidu said the government’s assertion that it had created 1,5-million jobs has to be taken with a pinch of salt as many jobs had been temporary employment. He said the budget failed to address job generation. ”The economy has been unable to absorb labour into the economy and as a result the level of unemployment continues to increase.”

Janet Love, of the Legal Resources Centre, said that while a 50% tax break on investments in small mining companies was proposed to encourage BEE and create jobs, such enterprises had provided ”few sustainable jobs … and enrichment for a limited number of individuals”.

While the FinMark Trust lauded the tax incentives to small mining enterprises, it was concerned that they were not extended to tourism, transport and other job-creating sectors. ”The incentives need to be applied more broadly if their potential is to be maximised,” said group chief executive Mark Napier.

Commenting on the budget in general, Peters said: ”There seems to be either a failure to understand the depth of poverty … or a dominance of the wishful thinking paradigm that wealth will eventually trickle down.”

With Manuel’s budget giving a great deal of attention to redressing the electricity crisis, the NGOs attacked the potential fallout from Eskom’s R60-billion loan.

Jimmy Gotyana, of the Eastern Cape NGO Coalition, expressed concern that the loan would eventually be recovered from consumers, ”who are already bearing the highest costs of electricity usage in the country”.

”We are certain that these costs will be passed into the consumers and thus hit the poor,” said the People’s Budget Coalition, which criticised the fact that the money was on loan and not a grant.

It pointed out that Eskom would, in fact, need R340-billion to extend electricity to communities who do not receive this basic service.



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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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