Nozuko Mahlobisa,46, who is not currently getting any income shows her empty grocery cupboard in her shack in Kwazakhele. Picture: Werner Hills
Nozuko Mahlobisa,46, who is not currently getting any income shows her empty grocery cupboard in her shack in Kwazakhele. Picture: Werner Hills

In the past two decades, SA reduced, but never fully tamed, child hunger. Between 2002 and 2018 the proportion of households that said there had been child hunger in their household at least once the previous year dropped from 35% to 16%. Stunting, wasting and underweight in children also declined.

Expansion of the reach and age-eligibility of the child support grant played a major role in the halving of child hunger between 2002 and 2007. During the 2007/2008 global financial crisis it rose steeply, and then, over a decade of slow economic growth, it only gradually declined to its 2007 level.

The first wave of the National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) was undertaken to measure the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic and the economic turbulence that has followed, at a time when normal statistical data could not be gathered.

The survey provides important insights into how people were affected before the top-ups to social grants and the introduction of two new grants could fully kick in.

In its first wave, the survey asked whether child hunger had been experienced in a household in the previous week (interviews took place in May and June).

Most grant-receiving households would already have received top-ups to their social grants by then. Nevertheless, high levels of child hunger were reported: 15% of all respondents indicated that it occurred in their household in the previous week.

Child hunger in the past week was 25% in households where the survey respondent had only primary education

There were as many respondents who reported that a child had gone hungry in their household in a week as reported that a child had gone hungry at least once in the previous year in the 2018 Stats SA General Household Survey (GHS).

In the Nids-Cram survey child hunger in the past week was 25% in households where the survey respondent had only primary education, with 8% experiencing hunger every day or almost every day in the past week.

Hunger among any household member was higher than for children — at 22% — suggesting that adults may have been shielding children from hunger. This is not something that was as apparent in previous data on hunger — in the GHS, for example, hunger for households and for children is usually reported at a similar magnitude.

In the new survey, where adults experienced hunger for four days or less in the past seven, almost half of the respondents (47%) indicated that a child did not go hungry in the household — in other words, half of children did not go hungry. The most plausible reason is that many households who are experiencing hunger are managing somehow to protect or shield the children from that hunger.

However, when there was perpetual adult hunger (every day or almost every day in the past seven days), adults appear less able to shield children.

Almost 40% of the more than 7,000 individuals interviewed for the Nids-Cram survey indicated that their households had lost a main income source between February and April, when the lockdown was implemented. Even in the wealthiest quintile, 25% indicated their household had experienced the loss of a main income source.

For households with similar levels of per capita income in 2017, child hunger reported in the Nids-Cram survey in the previous seven days was about 10 percentage points more likely in households that experienced income loss since the start of lockdown.

Running out of money for food is another indicator of the havoc that the pandemic has wrought. Altogether 40% of respondents had experienced running out of money for food in the previous month, whereas only 25% of respondents in the 2018 GHS indicated that this had happened to them in the previous year.

What it means:

Expanded social grants, expanded social grants cannot make up for the loss of income across such a broad swathe of the population

Put differently, almost twice as many respondents reported their households running out of money to buy food in a single month of lockdown (April 2020) as reported it happening for the whole of 2018.

This rise occurred across all education levels and all population groups.

The grants system has done a tremendous job of getting money to poor households in recent decades, and also during the lockdown.

However, expanded social grants cannot make up for the loss of income across such a broad swathe of the population — even after the top-ups and the new grants.

It is imperative that the top-ups continue beyond October — at present, they’re supposed to be discontinued after that month — and that the two new grants be implemented fully. But this will not undo the sharp increase in poverty and child hunger that followed the lockdown.

In fact, in the many households that experienced financial shortages yet somehow managed to put food on the table and avoid child hunger, the pressure will grow as savings are depleted and further borrowing becomes impossible.

These are troubled times.

*Van der Berg is professor of economics and the director of the research on socioeconomic policy unit at Stellenbosch University. For more information on the Nids-Cram survey, visit http://www.cramsurvey.org 

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