No child benefit, no school supplies

Life is not easy in Gurvanbulag, the remotest soum of Bayankhongor Province. The closest town is about ten hours away on a bumpy road

Sabina Netrvalová
Two children looking at camera
UNICEFMongolia/2018/Sabina Netrvalova

29 August 2019

“One litre of vegetable oil… 500 grams of flour… and some potatoes.” The owner of the grocery store in Gurvanbulag, a small soum (village) in south-western Mongolia, is going through her notebook. Every page is for one local family – a family who cannot afford to buy basic groceries and has to get them on credit. 

“Almost everybody in the village borrows from us because they have very little money. They usually pay us back once a month but not always – the herders often pay only once a year, after they sell cashmere wool,” the shopkeeper explains.

Life is not easy in Gurvanbulag, the remotest soum of Bayankhongor Province. The closest town is about ten hours away on a bumpy road, and weather conditions are so harsh that it is impossible to dig a well and install water pipes because of permafrost. The biggest problem, though, is the lack of jobs. Of the 2,200 people who live in this soum, only a few have a regular income – they are usually public servants or teachers. Everyone else depends on short-term seasonal work and various types of welfare benefits.

However, the most common benefit – child benefit, payable monthly to families with children under 18 – has been significantly reduced in the last few years. In 2016, the once-universal Child Money Programme became poverty targeted. Nowadays, the benefit, which is 20,000 tugriks (less than US$8) per child, is available for only 80 per cent of children. For many families, this is their only source of income.

“We don’t have any animals and there are no jobs, so child benefit is all we get. We’re now raising five children plus our granddaughter. Every month we receive 100,000 tugriks [less than US$40], which we use to buy flour, rice and meat,” says Mrs. Saruul Galsandorj. She and her husband only completed eight grades at school and Saruul has never worked. Her husband used to work in construction but cannot find a permanent job.

Family of six
UNICEFMongolia/2018/Sabina Netrvalova
Mrs. Saruul’s family lives with less than US$40 per month. They used to spend the child benefit on school supplies but now they use the money to buy food.

Until last year, the family received food stamps, which they used to buy basic groceries, and spent the child benefit on school supplies. But that changed – after filling in the government PMT survey, the family does not get any food stamps anymore. “Living only on child benefit is hard – we can’t even afford to buy coal for heating,” says Saruul.

Children left behind 

A PMT (proxy means test) is a way of measuring levels of poverty in a family, using household assets, or ‘proxies’ to estimate welfare. Last year, a government survey asked families about their income, possessions, and any large recent purchases, and then sent the data to the central registry in Ulaanbaatar. Every household was then given a score depending on their answers. 

“However, the process isn’t clear and even we don’t understand how they come up with the final scores and decide who is eligible for what. There’s a lack of information and people blame us for not getting benefits,” says Mrs. Tseye Baramsai, a social worker in Gurvanbulag. “The child benefit is creating a lot of problems in the soum – families with similar standards of living find it unfair that only some of them get it. There’s a lot of tension,” she adds.

For many families, benefits are the only way they can save money for their children’s education or even afford more nutritious food and pay for healthcare. That is why UNICEF believes that the child benefit should be universal, so no child is left behind. 

“Using a PMT for targeting Child Money is problematic. The last PMT covered less than 70 per cent of households. It is well known for its exclusion errors which are built into its design, and further errors are added during implementation. UNICEF supports the universality of the programme and offers other options, such as age-based or geographic targeting, if the Government cannot afford the fully universal Child Money Programme,” explains Mrs. Enkhnasan Nasan-Ulzii, Head of Social Policy at UNICEF Mongolia.

Child benefit for better education opportunities

In Erdenetsogt, another soum in Bayankhongor Province, the situation is similar. Although only 35 kilometres from the provincial capital, many locals struggle to find a long-term job. 

family in Gurvanbulag
UNICEF Mongolia/2018/Sabina Netrvalova
Mrs. Khaltar’s family is one of the poorest in Erdenetsogt. Her children find only short-term seasonal jobs.

Mrs. Khaltar Urchger has 11 children who still live with her – together with her four grandchildren. “We used to have many animals until my husband died 15 years ago. We wouldn’t survive without benefits because there is no work. My children only find short-term jobs like sea buckthorn picking,” she says. The family is one of the poorest in the soum, and as such, is also eligible for food stamps. “But in the first six months of the year, there were some administrative issues and we didn’t receive any. I had to take a pension loan, which means I won’t be getting any pension until 2020. We didn’t manage to save anything from the child benefit,” says Mrs. Khaltar.

Frequent delays and changes have also been a problem for Mrs. Byambasuren Manikhuu, mother of four. “We were excluded from the Child Money Programme when it became poverty targeted. Fortunately, now our children are eligible again. Two of them study at university and we use all the child benefit to pay for their tuition fees. I was very upset when we got cut off,” she says. The family owns more than 200 animals, which means it has some income from selling dairy products. However, they are dependent on child benefit in the winter.

UNICEF believes that the Child Money Programme is a way to reduce child poverty in Mongolia. More than a third of children (38.5 per cent) live in poverty, compared to 29.6 per cent of the population as a whole. A UNICEF-commissioned study shows that the programme has already contributed to a 5 per cent reduction in child poverty. 

In winter, Mrs. Byambasuren's family is dependent on child benefit.
UNICEF Mongolia/2018/Sabina Netrvalova
In winter, Mrs. Byambasuren's family is dependent on child benefit.