Bloomberg’s welfare addiction

Bloomberg Africa evokes Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" stereotype for poor South Africans.

Image by Franx. Via Flickr CC.

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was in South Africa this month to launch the Bloomberg Media Initiative, a $10-million project to build capacity in business and financial journalism across the continent (starting first in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa—which is a questionable choice of countries). But he should probably also invest some of his billions closer to home, too; at Bloomberg Africa, the Africa-focused overlay of his New York-based Bloomberg News agency. In an article published Tuesday, the agency elided details and invoked shades of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” stereotype to argue that South Africa has a welfare addiction.

The article transports the reader to the economically depressed town of Brandvlei, in the Northern Cape, South Africa’s most sparsely populated region, to bring us the image of a 72-year-old coloured grandmother, Eva Matthys, instructing her 13-year-old granddaughter on how to cook ground lamb for the family of 12’s supper that night. (That’s Ms Matthys sitting in front of the window  in the image above that accompanied the story.) But, wait for it, this is scandalous, because the family didn’t dance for their supper, which the writer appears galled to realise includes side dishes as ornate and lavish as macaroni and Bolognese sauce.

This was paid for by South African taxpayers, Bloomberg Africa notes in wide-eyed disbelief.

“Welfare dependency, a problem across the developed world, has reached a danger level in South Africa. More people receive aid than have jobs, and the ratio has been worsening for five years,” it says, before going downhill from there, repeating words like “dependency”, “welfare addition”, and the irrelevant statistic that South Africa spends more than Mexico and South Korea on its social program as a buttress against the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s statistic that this spending is nonetheless less than the developed-world average.

In short, the article uses a poor family as a foil to write an unconscionable hatchet job on the country’s social grants program. The things it gets wrong are numerous, the most significant of which are:

1. “Only one of the 12 [members of the Matthys family] works”: Uh, yes, but only three are of working age. Four of the family members are children, two more are barely 17 (and should be in school), and the remaining two adults are 72 and 78, well into retirement age.

2. The $400 figure in the headline and body copy is approximately $1.50 per day for each of the nine members of the family receiving the grants, barely above the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25 per day and below the $2 per day the South African government uses. Despite Bloomberg Africa’s best attempt to convince us otherwise, this family is not living large off the taxpayer’s buck.

3. The article repeats that the unemployed working-age members of the family (including school-aged kids) would look for work if they weren’t earning social grants, as though the grants are the cause of their unemployment. In South Africa, unemployment is structural and is not from indolence or the lack of trying on the part of the unemployed.

17-year-old Christoline — Eva’s granddaughter, who dropped out of high school when she gave birth to a daughter at 16 — suggests that she’d travel the 370 miles to Cape Town to look for work if she weren’t receiving a grant, because Brandvlei has no jobs prospects and a 90% unemployment rate.

But don’t mistake the desperate situation taking away the social grants would create for her as just the thing she, and her family, need to get jobs. If you know and understand the country’s history of racist land dispossessions and forced removals, and the destructive social effects of the migratory labor system on the communities supplying workers to the country’s economic centres like Cape Town and Johannesburg, you’ll know that it is a good and just thing that the social grants are stopping Christoline from leaving behind her one-year-old baby, family support network, and the possibility of returning to school in order to chase the faint promise of a job hundreds of miles away. It’s precisely this reason that the Human Sciences Research Council recently proposed that countries in sub-Saharan Africa should expand their social grants program to include a grant that aims to keep families together, even if they do decide to relocate to more economically prosperous areas.

But for some reason, this zombie myth about social grants causing unemployment will not die. This despite studies that showing that there is no evidence of a dependency culture, and micro-economic evidence showing that social grants provide recipients with the means to look for jobs and that little evidence exists that they discourage job seeking.

Like Reagan’s welfare queen, I suspect the persistence of this myth has a lot to do with racial prejudice.

4. Social grants fuel alcohol abuse: Like the myth linking teenage pregnancies and child support grants and the unsubstantiated claim that women in the Eastern Cape were drinking heavily while pregnant to claim disability grants for the child who’d be born disabled, an immortal trope exists that social grants fuel alcohol abuse. The Bloomberg article quotes a community worker who points to a group of young men stumbling toward a liquor store. But the drinking age in South Africa is 18, which is also the last year a teenager qualifies for the child support grant. That should have been the first clue for Bloomberg that this was dangerous and, at best, circumstantial anecdote, especially when compared to the evidence of the good social grants do for teens in communities like Brandvlei. And had Bloomberg Africa done a little more work, they would have known that the vast majority of social grants are spent on food and education, not alcohol.

5. Lamb for 12 paid for by South African taxpayers: The tax system in South Africa is progressive in some ways and regressive in others. While only working people earning above a certain threshold pay tax calculated on rates that escalate with income, sales tax is a flat 14% paid by everybody on most (basic food stuff and other items are zero rated) household goods. Even though it has a disproportionate effect on their ability to provide for themselves, the Matthys family pays sales tax on items that are not zero-rated. They, too, are taxpayers.

As a friend commented on my Facebook wall, “I never thought the day would come that I’d read an article that lambasts a poor family for eating a nice family meal — but I guess that day is here.”

All this said, an equal amount of scrutiny over this article should be directed to the South African Institute of Race Relations, which has been issuing policy briefs and media statements for a few years now to sound the warning that social grants program is too extensive and using that to qualify the positive effects social grants have had on the lives of recipients. The institute’s Lerato Moloi is quoted in the Bloomberg article doing just that.

For the thoughtful, the research on the impacts of social grants does not raise sustainability as the program’s primary, or even secondary, conundrum; the research points to the likelihood that the grants are barely enough to keep millions of South Africans out of abject poverty, but not enough to allow them the freedom to do much else beyond stay alive.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.