Working too hard: Social grants stretched thin within a failing system

While the child support grant has had a significant impact on the lives of disadvantaged children in South Africa, the full reach of the grant is undermined by poor service delivery. Recipients use parts of their grant for other services that should be free.

A study presented recently at the University of Johannesburg found that the impact of the child support grant on the everyday lives of women, who are the major recipients of the grants, is limited by institutional failures.

“The child support grant is very successful, but there are many other systems that are failing,” says University of Johannesburg Centre for Social Development in Africa senior researcher Tessa Hochfeld. “The grant is failing to deliver social justice because it is doing more than what it is meant to do.”

Research found that the value of the child support grant is eroded because families use the money to cover the costs of services such as education and primary health care, which are meant to be free.

Hochfeld argues that the state’s welfare obligations extend beyond cash transfers like child grants or pension pay-outs, to providing services such as special needs education. But often these services are provided by nongovernmental organisations that are poorly funded, she says.

“Often welfare services are not adequate to meet the needs of families or they simply aren’t available.”

In her study, Hochfeld tells the story of a woman who struggled to get a fee exemption for her sister’s child.

“The sister is a drug addict who lives on the street. The woman is raising her niece and receives a child support grant for her. But they live in an area where the schools charge fees, so they had to apply for a fee exemption for the child as the family cannot afford to pay school fees.”

But because the woman was not the child’s legal guardian, the school would not process the application without the mother’s signature. The child was eventually exempted from paying fees this year, but she will have to apply for an exemption again the following year.

“That is an institutional failure. The child has already gone through the means test and is receiving a grant. Children who are recipients of grants should then have access to other social services by right. Why is it so difficult for her to get a fee exemption?”

Hochfeld argues that families who receive a child support grant should be entitled to a package of care that allows them to access a range of services. Such a package would include automatic school fee exemptions and referrals to, for instance, the Department of Home Affairs for family members in need of IDs to access grants.

“The way the system works is that people have to fight for every single individual service. There’s a problem with our system, that burden of getting these services is on the people who need it most.” 

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Ina Skosana
Ina Skosana was a health reporter at Bhekisisa, the Mail & Guardian’s centre for health journalism, from 2013 to 2017.

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