Universal child benefits critical in reducing poverty, UNICEF and ODI report finds

As the economic fallout of COVID-19 deepens, investment in social protection systems key to protecting families from catastrophic levels of deprivation and financial hardship.

17 June 2020
UNICEF South Africa/2015/Schermbrucker

PRETORIA, 17 June 2020 – Universal child benefits, such as unconditional cash payments or tax transfers, are critical in the fight against child poverty, yet are only available in 1 in 10 countries worldwide, according to a new report published today by UNICEF and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

The report Universal Child Benefits: Policy Issues and Options highlights that universal cash benefits provided to children in middle-income countries at a cost of just 1 per cent of GDP would lead to 20 per cent decline in poverty across the entire population.

In 15 high-income countries, delivering universal child benefits alone led to a 5-percentage point reduction in child poverty, on average. Universal child benefits are also proven to reduce deprivation, improving children’s overall wellbeing, health, education, food security, productivity and ability to contribute to their societies and economies when they reach adulthood.  

“Investing in children not only changes their lives but yields high dividends for their communities and for society as a whole,” said Henrietta Fore UNICEF Executive Director. “Now more than ever, as the economic fallout of COVID-19 threatens to roll back years of progress in reducing poverty, universal child benefits can be a lifeline. They can protect vulnerable families from deepening levels of poverty and deprivation, and can save countries from catastrophic societal and economic impacts.”

The Government of South Africa, through the Department of Social Development, has initiated an evolving cash transfer programme for children since 1996 which is now the largest Child Support Grant (CSG) on the continent  with a reach of 12,8 million children monthly. While appreciating the reasons for the national lockdown, this period has also exacerbated childhood poverty and hunger as well as anxiety and distress for children and their caregivers.

UNICEF therefore commends the South African Government for the top-up in the CSG by R300  in May and  R500 for each caregiver over the subsequent five months. “The findings in this timely and important report remind us that social protection has proven to be a positive instrument to mitigate the impact of poverty, other deprivations and inequalities,” notes UNICEF South Africa Representative, Jama Gulaid.

The report makes clear that expanding coverage of child and family benefits schemes requires national prioritization and international solidarity in financing – especially for lower income countries grappling with large populations and more constrained budgets due to COVID-19. It also stresses that universal child benefits must be supported by comprehensive social protection systems and quality social services, including healthcare and education.

“Universal child benefits play a critical role in reducing poverty while promoting social cohesion and public support for social protection. In countries with established universal child benefits, they constitute a cornerstone of national social policy systems and are effective in scaling up social protection in times of crisis,” says Sara Pantuliano, Chief Executive at ODI.

Importantly, the report notes that cash transfer programmes do not lead to a reduction in participation in paid work among the working-age population. Rather, cash transfers help parents balance the demands of employment with the needs of their families.

The report further highlights pathways to achieving universal coverage, including ways low-income countries can implement transfers for young children and build up to universality for all age groups. Steps including the adoption of legislation and policy regulation, strengthening administrative and financing capacity, and building political and public support for policy are all critical to achieving universal child benefits.

Media contacts

Sudeshan Reddy
Communication Specialist
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 82 561 3970
Georgina Thompson
Communication Specialist
Tel: +1 917 238 1559

Additional resources

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UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in over 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special efforts on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children everywhere.

Working with a range of partners, UNICEF has had a presence in South Africa since the end of apartheid and continues to work towards bettering the lives of all children in the country.

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About the Overseas Development Institute

ODI is an independent, global think tank, working for a sustainable and peaceful world in which every person thrives. We harness the power of evidence and ideas through research and partnership to confront challenges, develop solutions and create change. For more information on ODI’s research, please visit www.odi.org.