There has been much debate in the media about the Basic Income Grant (BIG) which hit the political arena when it formed the backbone of the DA’s social development strategy. Writing in the Mail & Guardian last week, Charles Meth argues that the BIG is the quickest way to alleviate poverty in the country. To me, the choice between a welfare state of social grants, growing the economy to create jobs, or a combination of these (as the ANC government is trying to do) is almost exclusively ideological. One can draw on as much evidence from other countries as one wants, but the multitude of country-and economy-specific factors mean that you can never tell, before the fact, whether any one system of social welfare/development is going to work better than another. This is a fundamental problem. It also means that if one system fails, it is not to say that another system may have worked any better – the exogenous factors (such as corruption, market fluctuations or government capacity) are too varied to pinpoint the reason for failure. When failures happen, more often than not it is an ideological reason that is given. The moral of the story is that whatever system is adopted, it has to be flawlessly executed and backed up with all the political will the government can muster.
I personally support the idea of a BIG in principle. However, there are a few problems. Meth claims that the BIG would be relatively easy to put in place – I disagree. The government struggles to release pensions and other social grants on time and without significant skimming through corruption (just go to the Eastern Cape to see what I mean), so who’s to say the distribution of a BIG would be any better? I say, wait until the pension and child grant processes are running effectively and then one can think about piggy-backing a BIG onto these. A problem, however, is that the government has recently announced they will be centralising the management of the social grants which can only result in a bureaucratic nightmare of inefficiency.
It is quite surprising that the ANC has not jumped at the idea of the BIG and it was the DA who tacked it (rather incongruously) onto their otherwise liberal economic strategy. To me, it seems the easiest way to gain mass support, but they obviously decided that the promise of jobs was a greater election draw-card than the promise of handouts. It definitely indicates a more ambitious outlook towards alleviating poverty than simply providing a static lifeline. What I suspect is going to happen is that once the temporary jobs created during the Extended Public Works Programme cease to exist, the ANC will adopt a more comprehensive social welfare system. This will be just in time for the 2009 elections, when the promise of a regular monthly income won’t go unnoticed by the (still) unemployed masses.