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Hard cash boosts child health in South Africa

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Science  12 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6202, pp. 1264
DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6202.1264

A rigorous study shows that giving poor South African families a little extra money for each of their children improves their health and education.

Money may not buy love or happiness, but if you give a poor family a small sum each month for each of their children, it leads to measurable improvements in their health, education, and well-being. That's the lesson from an ambitious program in South Africa, the Child Support Grant (CSG), which directly reduces poverty with cash transfers.

Monthly child support grants, now issued as debit cards, improve the health and education of South African children.

PHOTO: © MADELENE CRONJÉ/MG

In South Africa, any family that can demonstrate financial need is entitled to a monthly stipend of about $30 per child, no strings attached. In 1998, when the CSG started, the cutoff was 6 years old; today it is 17, and the program reaches 11 million children. Families can apply to receive monthly payouts for each child, which costs the government more than $3 billion each year.

In 2008, the Cape Town—based Economic Policy Research Institute (EPRI) set out to see how well the program worked, surveying 2500 people in five provinces. Rather than simply comparing families that received help with those that did not, the study took advantage of CSG's rocky start. At first, many eligible families did not receive the CSG, as a documentary aired on South African TV in 2001 revealed. The exposé spotlighted widespread serious illness in poor, rural children whose caregivers, mainly grandmothers, had not registered for the CSG, often because registration sites were far from their homes or they found the required paperwork overwhelming. In response to the public outcry, the government dispatched vans to the area to sign up eligible families en masse. “That almost created a natural experiment so years later, we could compare the youth in towns where the mobile registration had stopped and signed up people to other youth who were passed over and weren't getting the grant,” says economist Michael Samson, EPRI's director of research.

He and his colleagues considered the cash per child the “unit dose” and asked how children fared in households that had received different doses. In May 2012, the South African government and the United Nations Children's Fund, which funded the EPRI study, published a report detailing the results. Children in families that received higher doses had improved growth, decreases in illness, better grades and attendance at school, and were less likely to take risks with sex, drugs, and alcohol when they reached adolescence. The report asserts that the program is “one of the most comprehensive social protection systems in the developing world.”

Samson says there are “massive scarcities of opportunities” for South Africa's poor. “A cash transfer effectively allows the household to invest in breaking intergenerational poverty,” he says, noting that unconditional cash transfers have become popular throughout Africa. And in South Africa, he says, the CSG is the main source of income for more than 20% of households.

Samson says many families that are eligible for CSGs still are not receiving them, leading some to urge the government to drop the means test and provide cash transfers to every household with children. “It's the best way to eliminate the exclusion of the most marginalized,” he says. He points out that two-thirds of South African families are eligible, and says for wealthier families this would be a welcome tax rebate. “Either way, you win.”

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