Tessa Hochfeld embarked on a study of the child support grant in South Africa at a time when global interest in such experiments was high.
The new anti-poverty emphasis on growth, services, and social protection rather than on short-term safety nets – in part influenced by researchers associated with the World Bank – led to a worldwide and rapid expansion of social assistance policies.
South Africa had a particular place in the study of these developments as it represented an early model for a redistributive grants system that had feminist concerns at its core. The elaboration of a new grants system after apartheid, which aimed to be both redistributive and inclusive, was path-breaking in its theoretical framing as well as instructive in the contested politics that came in the wake of social protection programmes.
Fiscal conservatives attacked the expanded social protection approach for creating dependency and depleting the public offers. Alongside this, attacks on mothers claiming the child support grant repeatedly deployed patriarchal stereotypes of unworthy and licentious women.
Had grants made any difference?
Leftist critics, meanwhile, pointed to the meagreness of the grant. Tessa entered this debate with a set of scholarly questions that aimed to understand whether, a decade after their introduction, the grants had made a material difference to the women who received them. Her work was rooted in the lives of women, crediting them with agency and understanding, and seeking to make these the basis of theorisation.
By the time that Tessa began her research, around 2010, there was considerable consensus in social protection literature that cash transfers are a good thing, policy-wise. Social assistance was seen as the most important and effective tool to tackle extreme poverty, offering predictable and reliable income to millions of people.
By 2015, the World Bank reported that 1.9 billion people in 136 countries for which data was available received cash and in-kind transfers; 37% of them received a cash transfer. By 2018 this had risen to 140 countries, with 43% receiving conditional and 70% unconditional cash transfers. This approach leads to well-documented improvements in terms of monetary poverty, education, health and nutrition, savings, investment, and production – and in women’s and girls’ well-being.
In South Africa, two particular aspects of the design of the child support grants were unique and of interest to the global debates.
First, the grant rested on a fairly generous interpretation of means-testing, allowing South Africa to avoid the social and economic problems that other developing countries have experienced by targeting only the very poor. Second, although the grant was not based on maternalism but on the needs of the child, in practice mothers were the main beneficiaries.
Looking at grant system from the bottom up
The presence of a child’s biological mother increased the probability that a child would receive the grant; a child receiving the grant was more likely to live only with its biological mother than with both parents, or with just the biological father. These were significant findings for feminist debates, in which an abiding concern relates to the ways in which to design policy interventions that recognise the uneven distribution of care while not reinscribing or perpetuating unbalanced and patriarchal burdens.
Tessa’s work, presented in this posthumous book, approaches the grant system from the bottom up.
Her central question is whether a cash transfer enables women to expand their capacities to live the lives that they value. She is interested in how women define their own needs, rather than how these are defined by the state, and whether cash makes an impact on their decision-making within households.
Can grants make the world more just, and not simply less poor? To answer these qualitative and, to an extent, deeply personal and subjective questions, she explores the lives of six women living in the contiguous Johannesburg working-class neighbourhoods of Sophiatown, Westbury, and Claremont.
She spent years in conversation with them, getting to know their families and their communities. Her interactions with the women at times went beyond the boundaries of academic research: she assisted them with the paperwork necessary in various interactions with bureaucracies, found supportive resources to deal with familial crises, and discussed their (sometimes shared) worries as daughters and mothers. She navigated these roles of social worker, therapist, friend, and dispassionate researcher with grace, although she constantly worried about her research participants’ futures.
Reduction of poverty
Tessa shows that women were by no means perfect subjects of state policies, but that they were able to use grants in ways that made a difference to their lives. Poverty was reduced in these households: hunger was abated, some opportunities for work opened up, and some greater stability was achieved for women.
The child support grant succeeded in these terms. However, the failures of the South African state to provide a more holistic package of support to poor households, including healthcare, social welfare services, and decent housing, limited the grant’s impact. By offering only a cash grant, the state transfers a burden onto women by assuming that a minuscule and regular income will lead to an exit from poverty.
Despite all its important and positive impacts, the child support grant is an alleviating mechanism rather than a transformative intervention. A caring state, Tessa posits, is not only one that cares for poor people (by alleviating some of their burdens) but also one that cares about their well-being in a fully holistic fashion. Who bears the responsibility for caring about citizens – what role is particular to the public, as part of our democratic responsibilities to each other? Can the care responsibility be met by providing cash grants?
Sadly, Tessa was unable to complete this manuscript for publication as a monograph. On a Saturday afternoon in August 2019, Tessa was killed in a freak accident while cycling in her neighbourhood.
*That was the foreward from Professor Tessa Hochfeld’s book Granting Justice: Cash, care, and the child support grant published by HSRC Press. It was edited by Shireen Hassim and Leila Patel.