Hochfeld, Tessa (2017). 'The more you need, the less deserving you are: exploring the paradox of social welfare in South Africa' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


South Africa’s social assistance programme is well-regarded internationally as a successful state commitment to those poor and vulnerable. Ironically, though, grant recipients can be negatively regarded, with discourses of laziness, misuse, and dependency surprisingly prominent considering how wide-spread grant receipt is among the poor. This paper explores this paradox by considering a single case and the multi-layered and complex nature of deprivation, need, and social constructions of worthiness, using notions of social justice and capabilities to do so.

The case I focus on is of a young woman, Nandi (not her real name), living in a crowded household in an urban area in South Africa, and caring for her two children with the support of two Child Support Grants (CSGs). The CSG is a monthly cash transfer disbursed to over 12 million poor children in South Africa, and while it has a very modest monetary value (about USD29), it has made a substantial difference to poverty and food security of children and their households. The experiences of this young woman, details of which were gathered qualitatively via narrative research, demonstrate some of the benefits of the CSG for her caring responsibilities for her children; simultaneously, Nandi acknowledges that, at times, the grants fund alcohol binges and discretionary personal spending. A micro-analysis of this case throws up complex issues related to our expectations of those receiving social assistance versus those who are not, and raises political questions about rights, obligations, and freedom. In this paper, judgemental assumptions around the ‘undeserving’ welfare recipient are scrutinised, and located in an analysis of the ‘politics of distribution’ (Ferguson, 2015). Using notions of capabilities to understand Nandi’s experiences and the social discourses around grants, drives a surprising conclusion: the more you need, the less deserving you appear to be.

To arrive at this conclusion, I unpack the multidimensionality of poverty and the interconnectedness of material and social needs, framed so effectively by the notion of capabilities. I argue that, despite the successes of this cash transfer, it cannot adequately expand people’s choices and freedom for them to live a life they have reason to value. A long trajectory of poverty, through structural deprivation over generations, can severely limit capabilities available to individuals. Genuinely expanding their capabilities cannot be addressed in a reductionist way via just income. This case alerts us to the danger of focusing on only the material and ignoring the role of dignity, affect, and emotion, as this leads to superficial or simplistic solutions to the needs of poor people, and ideologically driven judgements about their use of the services provided.

The capabilities approach offers a framework for understanding the intersection between material needs and social recognition, between individual experiences and collective discourses. The approach is able to deal well with nuance and complexity, such as engaging with issues of misrecognition and social injustice (Robeyns, 2003). This case demonstrates that social justice is not only about getting the policy and legal frameworks right, but also engaging with the social politics of distribution. The paper attempts to advance the difficult and complex pathway to real freedom to live a life of value.

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