Who do the new Thai welfare cards really benefit?
Having only just been introduced, people are already questioning whether the new welfare cards are helping the poor, or making the rich, richer.
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.”