BANGKOK — For many commuters, 300 baht buys five long-haul BTS rides. For Chum Chompho, it means over a month’s supply of rice, instant noodles, soap and toothpaste for her entire family.
The 66-year-old Nakhon Ratchasima native was among 11.6 million indigent Thais to get one-size-fits-all welfare cards with allowances for travel expenses, groceries, school supplies and agricultural goods.
But one week after the last batch of cards were distributed in the capital, problems and concerns have been raised about their efficiency and sustainability, with criticism the welfare program was designed to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
Officially called welfare cards, they are more casually and commonly known as cards for the poor. They function like debit cards but can only be used at registered stores with special card readers.
The cash limit renews monthly and cannot be accrued. Cardholders can add money to the balance if it insufficient to cover an expense.
Since Oct. 1, many registered grocery stores in the 70 provinces where the cards were distributed have seen big crowds flock to their shops.
But with the rollout came problems and confusion. Residents in some distant rural communities had difficulty finding registered shops. Some cardholders didn’t know how much money they had. Others didn’t use them for goods but simply bartered them for cash.
Due to additional technology that will allow them to be used on public transportation in the capital – including the BTS and MRT rail systems – residents of Bangkok and six nearby provinces didn’t get their cards until last week.
Missing the Mark?
Komsan Chan-on of the Four Regions Slum Network said this illustrates the government’s failure to understand how low-income Thais, over half a million of which are registered in Bangkok, actually live.
“The urban poor use songthaew, motorbikes or boats,” he said. “A homeless man who carries a bag into a BTS [station] will just be chased off by a security guard.”
That holds true for Sophawadee Phuipin, a 45-year-old seamstress who works out of her home. The only time she goes out, she explained while queuing to register for the program a few months back, is to get her two daughters to and from school. The free buses were perfect for three passengers.
In the northeastern province Nakhon Ratchasima, Somying Luedkratok said she wants the government to take the travel credit she can’t use – no buses or trains pass her community – and let her use it for groceries.
Enough people shared Somying’s complaint to get the Finance Ministry to say it might consider increasing the credit for supplies.
For laborers who travel provinces to province for seasonal work, typically in agriculture or construction, Komsan said the monthly cash limit was not enough.
“With the free train service, laborers could move whenever they wanted. They could go to Chiang Mai. And then if there was no demand, they could move to Chonburi,” he said. “Giving them a quota of 500 baht to move to find work … it’s not welfare, it’s control.”
Though the cards have been generally met with gratitude, many welfare recipients said they preferred the cash offered under previous junta welfare programs for its flexibility.
“If they are really poor, it’s better to give them cash,” said Somchai Jitsuchon of the Thailand Development Research Institute, or TDRI. “Small amounts of money can make a difference if they have real needs.”
The new policy was devised after two junta handouts in recent years drew complaints it was engaging in the same populist, hearts-and-minds policies it criticized the elected government for pursuing. The move to welfare debit cards with allocated budgets came in response to that criticism.
But a few hundred baht is not going to raise recipients from poverty, and economists and social workers agree the real agenda was to stimulate the economy in response to a slump in consumer spending.
“The government borrows the hands of the poor to pass money to the capitalists,” Komsan said.
It did not take long for a perpetual government gadfly to file a petition against it. Two weeks ago, Srisuwan Janya, a lawyer and transparency crusader, petitioned the government to end the program, saying it was designed to only benefit the few tycoons who sell all consumer goods.
Land Taken, Card Given
After the junta seized power from the elected government in 2014, it launched a draconian campaign of land seizures framed as reclamation of public space and forest. But in many conflicted areas, land ownership has a complicated history.
Three years ago, hundreds of soldiers poured onto Rieng Kongthum’s property in the south, chopped down her rubber trees and banned her from her own home. The land had been declared part of a national park many years back, after she had bought it.
The 80-year-old woman now lives in a temporary roadside hut. Her grandchildren had to drop out of school and take jobs at a restaurant due to the loss of rubber plantation income. For the past year, she has joined a movement to travel nearly 800 kilometers to the capital four times to ask the government to return the land where she lived and grew rubber trees for 35 years.
In previous years she received cash disbursements under a previous welfare program. As for the new cards, she disagrees with the decision to stop distributing money for a simple reason – she does not know what to do with it.
“I don’t know how to use it,” she said on a recent afternoon in Bangkok, where she had traveled to seek help after her land was taken. “I will have to wait for my grandchildren to help me out.”
Despite saying no one would be left behind by its development plans, the government has actually enacted policies counter to that principle which hurt people like Rieng, according to the director of Chulalongkorn University’s Social Research Institute.
Prapas Pintobtang said, besides offering short-term help, policy-makers should not forget that their resource allocation decisions are one of the main causes of poverty, such as massive land seizures for property that will be given over to commercial use..
“Some are made poor by government megaprojects,” he said. “You have seen them move people out by the Article 44 to create the special economic zone.”
Lifting the Poor or Boosting Bottom Lines?
The welfare card program is much more expensive than the free transportation program, and economists say that it makes sense when seen as a massive stimulus program.
Instead of 2 billion baht annually for the free bus and train services, the government committed 50 billion baht for the welfare program.
The Thai Chamber of Commerce predicted on Oct.5 that the welfare cards would inject 10 billion baht into cash circulating the economy.
While that in itself is a positive indicator, the activist who advocates slum-dwellers nationwide said it perpetuates disparities rather than empowers low-income citizens.
“Will it increase number of the poor?” Komsan said. “Possibly, if the GDP continues to be built by a few tycoons, based on inequality.”