In South Africa impoverishment coexists with great opulence and is generally outlined by class, gender and race.
The state of poverty, economic and social exclusion is a problem that can and should be solved. The government-distributed social grants have been shown to reduce poverty. However, the dilemmas of democratic society, of everyday life, are deeply paradoxical in that the welfare of an individual cannot be tied to that of another person, yet society is measured and judged on its collective wellbeing.
Furthermore, welfare economists acknowledge that the distributive outcomes of capitalism and markets are not always compatible with the rules of equality that society adopts for itself.
In reality, some will always be better off and some will be worse off, because this is the nature of the capitalist mode of production.
The reason for this column is to consider the recent court ruling not to extend the R500 top-up on social grants given to caregivers, while continuing with the more widely distributed temporary Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant of R350 a month.
Should the temporary pandemic-induced Social Relief of Distress grant continue?
Knowing the persistency of poverty, inequality and unemployment in South Africa and the changed realities caused by Covid-19 – the loss of income and subsequent rising hunger – the significance of the social grant is neither overstated nor can the little social safety net it provides for recipients be taken for granted.
However, concerns about the sustainability of the grants makes this a sizzling topic in the debate around whether or not they should continue to be disbursed.
The long and short of the social grants dilemma:
- The argument for the continuation of the top-up is that it’s tied to the national state of disaster;
- However, the hard lockdown has been relaxed and economic activity resumed in May; and
- National Treasury has made it clear there are no additional funds to continue with the R500 top-up of social grants.
This has led me to ponder upon the relationship between individual wealth and welfare and a socially just society.
How can we know how things ought to be?
The debate has made me think of Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (1711-1776) and his ‘Is-Ought’ problem on morality.
In this case: how can we know what ought to be about social grants, based on our knowledge of what is – bearing in mind that we cannot derive an ought from an is.
If the argument is that South Africa ought not to continue with social grants because of their presumed financial unsustainability, compounded by no additional funds being set aside and rising debt, then it is valid. In other words, no-moral facts such as government tightening its fiscal belt to reduce spending, then make this argument valid.
This can be done using readily available numerical data and statistics. For example, according to the 2020 Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement, South Africa’s gross debt will rise from roughly R4 trillion this year to R5.5 trillion in 2023/24 – and the government is borrowing at a rate of R2.1 billion per day.
Another example is that topping up caregiver grants will cost R10.9 billion if extended for three months, in addition to the R6.8 billion extended to Social Relief of Distress grant in the same period.
In the context of the is-ought problem, these figures reflect what ‘is’; they show what is happening and what can be measured.
However, we cannot measure the ‘wrongness’ or morality of discontinuing the social grants or our perception of them as a disadvantage on the economy based on these factual measures.
It must be recognisable by now that Hume’s argument was a utilitarianism problem or, in this case, that because government debt and spending is increasing, maintaining social grants is unaffordable and retaining them is an addition to the debt – therefore the government ought to do away with them or not extend them.
Linking the is-ought problem to South Africa’s social welfare and collective wellbeing and the moral arguments regarding grants, I am inclined to agree with Hume: it is not easy to make the connection between the world of values and the world where you and I don’t have an idea how life-changing and sustaining to the recipients those social grants may be.
Considering all of the above, I wonder – do we leap from observations about facts to judgement about values without minding the gap in our reasoning?
Especially the gap about why social grants are needed in the first place.
For many South Africans, even before the pandemic, being in work did not guarantee a comfortable standard of living or being able to put basic food on the table. The only social safety net keeping hunger at bay for some is the Social Relief of Distress grant … for now.