Tipping the scales on food-insecurity - a case for conditional social grants

Annette Willemse -- Fri, 11/13/2015 - 14:06

Tipping the scales on food-insecurity - a case for conditional social grants

Section 27 of the South African Constitution declares that “everyone has the right to sufficient food” and that the State must – within the constraints of its available resources, take reasonable legislative and other measures to achieve this basic right.

Against this background, the South African Government developed and expanded its social-security programmes, resulting in the number of people receiving social grants increasing from 2.4 million in 1989 to 16.7 million people in 2014. The distribution of these social grants in 2014 was 18.56% for the old age, 0.001% for the war veteran’s grant, 6.59% for the disability grant, 0.71% for the grant in aid, 70.27% for the child support grant, 3.09% for the foster child grant and 0.76% for the care-dependency grant.

Prof Wynand Grobler Prof Grobler during his inaugural lecture


In his inaugural lecture – “Urban food insecurity: A case for conditional cash grants?”; Prof Wynand Grobler - Director of the School of Economic Sciences on the Vaal Triangle Campus (NWU Vaal), argues that growing levels of urbanization in the next decade will force government and policymakers to increasingly shift their attention towards the issue of urban food insecurity and the question of how to increase access to food against the background of increasing levels of unemployment. “South African studies in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Emfuleni show that in low-income areas, significant levels of food insecurity exist. I am of the opinion that food insecurity will continue to increase in severity, unless government undertakes proper intervention measures in terms of policy – and more so policies pertaining to social grants.”

Social grants – the South Africa picture

The number of social grants recipients in South Africa have increased exponentially over the past twenty years: from an estimated 4-million in 1994 to 16.9-million by 30 September 2015. In recent years a growing chorus of voices have warned that the numbers are not sustainable. In fact, grant amounts have increased and ages of those who qualify have been extended. The Department of Social Development is currently considering extending the Child Support Grant (CSG) to age 23, partly because of the large number of child-headed households where older children take care of younger siblings.

Prof Grobler explains that there is concern over whether South Africa’s spending on social welfare is sustainable in the long term. According to research that has compared the government’s expenditure on social grants and civil service remuneration since 2008 with government revenue over the same period, these will absorb all government income by 2026 if current growth trends are not adjusted. Henceforth, Prof Grobler proposes conditional social grants as a possible intervention. According to him there are three main arguments for conditioning a social grant, namely:

  1. Contrary to the rational behaviour assumption in micro economics, behavioural economists suggest that people do not always act in a rational way.
  2. Conditioning social grants that are based on good behaviour increase the public support for social-security programmes.
  3. Conditional social grants may lead to positive spin-offs to society in terms of better education, which benefits all in society.

Tipping the scales on food-insecurity

Professor Grobler identifies the following concepts as indicators of the food-security status of households in South Africa: employment status, income of households, and food expenditure of households, household size and, the level of education of the head of the household.

“Improving food security in urban areas, therefore, needs a policy that will significantly impact on heads of households to find employment and to increase their ability to earn more income, or to spend their limited income in the best possible way,” explains Prof Grobler and adds that as such, households should prioritise spending to ensure food security on the household level. Social-security should also, according to him, be directed towards prioritized expenditure on food. In this regard, education concerning household income budgeting and nutrition may be beneficial to soften the effect of limited income and the like.

“Social grants may not be enough to solve the growing problem of food-insecurity, as food-insecurity scores do not decrease as households receive more grants. Research also indicates that grant recipients’ dietary diversity is lower than non-grant recipients, which shows that grants do not by default ensure increased dietary diversity.”  It is Prof Grobler’s view that social grants – in its current form, may not be sustainable and efficient enough to solve the food-insecurity problem in South Africa. He recommends that the South African Government should consider a system of conditional grants suitable for South Africa, perhaps conditions like in other countries such as Argentina, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua.

In this regard, policy should be coordinated and complemented with services provided by social workers. Compulsory seminars may also assist the needy in planning their household budget to ensure improved dietary diversity and food security.