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What can be done to tackle the systemic causes of poverty in South Africa

A man wearing a COVID-19 mask stands outside a shack, holding some apples. He is facing another man who is holding a child.
Ederies Samodien offers a child apples at a shack settlement as part of a poverty relief effort in Cape Town. Almost 56% of South Africans live in poverty. EFE-EPA/Nic Bothma

Despite gains made in the first 15 years of democracy, 55.5% of South Africans lived below the poverty line as of 2015. Coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, household food insecurity, child hunger, and extraordinarily high youth unemployment levels have eroded the early gains made.

The country’s expansive social grants system, insurance schemes and social relief are important mechanisms for ameliorating these challenges. But they need to go further. And the country should tackle the root causes of poverty, which are systemic. This means they cannot be shifted with a single intervention. That’s because cycles of disadvantage accumulate over long periods, generate multiple barriers, and are transferred across generations.

Poverty among young people

Take the case of young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). They are perhaps among the most vulnerable to lifelong poverty. Most NEET youth are black Africans. They are income poor, have no post-secondary education, and live in households in which nobody works.

Research into the agency and resilience of NEET youth found that they face multiple barriers as they attempt to secure their first job. This makes it difficult to choose between household income going to food or seeking work. They may also live far away from learning and income earning opportunities. They may have their own or other people’s children at home, or older people to care for, with few options for high-quality, low-cost care support.

The research found that young people try multiple strategies to make something of their lives, but are continuously derailed by a number of barriers. The end result is that some of them give up the search for work. They may even suffer poor mental health, which further erodes the possibility of escaping the poverty trap.

Childhood poverty

But the cycle of disadvantage begins much earlier in life, indicating the systemic and multilayered nature of poverty and disadvantage. One of our studies at the University of Johannesburg assessed children in the foundation grades R and 1 (most between the ages of 6 and 8) in five schools in Johannesburg’s poorest wards. It shows that many face multiple barriers that negatively affect their well-being.

These barriers include food insecurity, poverty-related depression among their caregivers, or lack of access to health screening to ensure they can see and hear to be able to learn. These poverty-related barriers are likely to keep them trapped in a vicious cycle of disadvantage for the rest of their lives.

South Africa has invested significantly in a social wage package that includes social grants, free basic education, healthcare, and basic services. A recent World Bank report shows that these have been incredibly important in limiting inequality and alleviating the worst effects of poverty. But, as the report also states,

there appears to be no overt consideration of or attempt to align [social grants] with South Africa’s systemic development challenges.

What the report is referring to is the need to connect the most vulnerable people with a range of public services that can address the multiple barriers poverty creates. This is crucial if South Africa is to tackle the systemic nature of poverty and disadvantage.

The connection of vulnerable people to a range of public services can be done through integrating public services at a national level. For instance, social grant beneficiaries could automatically be eligible for, and be informed of, complementary services such as public employment support through the Department of Labour.

Government is considering integrating social protection with other services so that existing services and investments can have a deeper impact on poverty.

Such integration also needs to exist at the local level, through communities of practice. These are innovative communities of researchers and practitioners, service agencies and service users that devise breakthrough ideas and solutions to protracted problems. This approach, also called collective impact by researchers, is used around the world.

Communities of practice for children and families

We are testing how such communities of practice can improve outcomes for vulnerable children and NEET youth. The Community of Practice for Social Systems Strengthening to Improve Child Well-being Outcomes (led by Professor Leila Patel) is under way. It aims to promote collaboration across different sectors to better address the complex and multiple needs of children growing up in poverty. It also aims to develop innovative, collaborative and breakthrough solutions to promote better outcomes for them.

In the first phase from February to November 2020 the communities of practice consortium of partners assessed a sample of children who were receiving the child support grant and were in the foundation years of schooling. That’s because targeted interventions in nutrition, health and education at this developmental stage could result in positive outcomes for children, families and communities.

After gathering data for 162 children’s health, home circumstances, psycho-social functioning, and school and learning experiences, potential interventions were identified that could mitigate the risks they face.

These interventions, rolled out in the course of 2021, considered the multilayered nature of poverty and the range of interventions a child may need. Local-level communities of practice designed action plans based on each child’s situation. These groups consist of teachers, principals, social workers, educational psychologists, community-based nurses and other health workers, and NGOs in the relevant community or school.

These groups work collaboratively with the schools and, crucially, with caregivers whose children have been identified as needing extra support. That includes everything from arranging eye and hearing screenings to referring families to food support programmes, and ensuring that teachers are better equipped to improve children’s numeracy and literacy.

Drawing on the data from our communities of practice study, we also designed and delivered educational messaging, via community radio, on promoting parental involvement in children’s education, nutrition, financial education and tips for parents and other caregivers.

At the time of writing the communities of practice had ensured that 50 children’s vaccinations were completed; 30 had educational assessments, with recommendations about learning support provided to schools. Twenty-five families identified as having struggles at home were referred to Sihleng’imizi, a family strengthening programme.

Caregivers who showed depressive symptoms received follow-up visits by social workers based in each school, and were to be referred to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. We are collecting follow-up data to understand what changes have been observed.

A promising approach

The results of the child well-being project suggest that communities of practice may improve outcomes by referring children and caregivers to whichever services they need to overcome the barrier they are facing at a given time. They can also be a basis upon which to connect social grant recipients to complementary services that can unlock the multiple barriers that people living in poverty face.

A similar approach will soon be applied to NEET youth. The Basic Package of Support programme will pilot communities of practice in three communities. It will bring together local colleges, work-seeker support programmes, health and mental health support facilities, childcare programmes and food support programmes, among others, to collaboratively learn about the challenges that these youth face, and how to better support them.

Such an approach promises to ensure that young people can connect to the wide range of services and opportunities they need to break down the many barriers they face as they seek to move into learning and earning.

This approach, as our research projects and examples from elsewhere prove, is a valuable way to tackle some of the conditions that contribute to poverty.

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