6 June 2024

With a general election just around the corner, political parties are now competing to woo voters via the popular welfare card scheme. Academics, however, warn that this scheme has already failed to tackle poverty or improve Thais’ overall living standard, and is likely to remain ineffective unless reformed.

“If the welfare card is so good, why is the number of people living below the poverty line rising?” asked Kritsada Theerakosonphong, a Silapakorn University lecturer who researches social and state welfare in Thailand.

Launched six years ago, the scheme offers people aged over 18 who earn no more than 100,000 baht per year various types of state welfare. For instance, people in this income group are eligible for a subsidy of a few hundred baht for their household bills, and another 500 baht in public transport allowance.

Its first year saw only 11.46 million people register for the scheme. However, when the government invited applications for the scheme this year, 22.2 million Thais responded by signing up. The authorities are now reviewing each applicant’s financial status and eligibility.

But Kritsada has serious doubts about the welfare card scheme’s power to raise living conditions for Thailand’s poorest people.

“This policy is quite ineffective because it does not really help pull people out of poverty,” he said.

Key focus for competing parties

Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party, which is set to nominate Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha as its sole PM candidate for the election, could benefit the most from promoting the scheme since it was launched under Prayut’s auspices and has proved popular among a large number of Thais.

“The prime minister came up with the concept of upgrading the efficiency of the welfare system,” PM’s Office minister and close aide Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana said. “If he returns as the prime minister, I believe he will upgrade all government policies.”

Deputy PM General Prawit Wongsuwan, who is leader of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and was once dubbed Prayut’s “Big Brother”, has tried to upstage Prayut by vowing his party will raise the monthly allowance for low-income group to 700 baht if it gains power.

Too popular to be scrapped?

Nitirat Sapsomboon, director of State Welfare for Equality and Justice (We Fair) Network, said that although most academics and experts see the welfare-card scheme as unhealthy for the poor, not a single political party will dare to scrap it, for fear of losing votes.

“This scheme is as populist as it gets,” Nitirat said. “It also appeals to some 20 million voters.”

Kritsada, meanwhile, said that because it covers such a big base of voters, the scheme would even be maintained by opposition parties if they won power at the election, tentatively scheduled for May 7.

Parties that were not directly involved in launching the welfare-card scheme are now trying to develop other populist ideas.

Opposition-leading party Pheu Thai has come up with a plan to raise the minimum daily wage to 600 baht by 2027. Its opposition partner Move Forward, meanwhile, has promised to raise the monthly subsidy for the elderly from 600-1,000baht to 3,000 baht in the next five years. The Charthaipattana Party has announced that if it gains power, each disabled person will receive 3,000 baht per month from the state.

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Direct benefit or invisible loss

Millions of welfare cardholders have enjoyed tangible benefits from the scheme every month for several years now. However, these benefits are not entirely free given that money spent on the scheme could go to finance other useful subsidies or public goods.

“The government has to reduce other forms of welfare or investment in national development to pay for such a huge scheme,” Kritsada pointed out.

Over the past five years, the government has allocated at least 34.9 billion baht per year to fund the welfare-card scheme.

Kritsada claims no other country has ever embarked on such a large, long-term cash welfare scheme before. Similar schemes in other countries have been implemented over shorter periods or targeted at certain cities.

Lack of progressive welfare policies

Kritsada said the government provides state welfare to Thais by focusing on their neediness rather than their rights to basic services. In other words, Thai authorities adopt a condescending attitude of helping the poor and the vulnerable.

“There have been no progressive welfare policies in Thailand in recent years,” the academic said.

According to Kritsada, progressive welfare policies did exist during the time of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who worked hard to modernize Thailand. During his premiership (1938-1944), care homes for the elderly such as Ban Bang Khae were established as part of basic state services, not as a means to help the elderly who were struggling to survive. There were also discussions about maternity leave, labor protection, and other basic welfare during that time.

“Thailand then went backwards regarding state welfare policies for several decades. The trend was reset and reversed only during the time of General Chatichai Choonhavan [1988-1991],” Kritsada said. “During Thaksin Shinawatra’s term [2001-2006], only the 30-baht medical scheme [known today as the universal healthcare scheme] was progressive.”

The governments associated with the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which was formed after the 2014 military coup, launched many welfare schemes, but most were little more than charity, he said. None were progressive in nature.

“With progressive welfare policies, you can improve the living standard of people,” Kritsada said.

Only the Move Forward Party is offering progressive welfare policies at the next election, he said. However, he added that most of these policies are far too sophisticated for mass appeal.

Other political parties, meanwhile, are focusing on old-style welfare policies that are implemented for the needy, such as low-income earners, the elderly or the bedridden.

Progressive welfare policies that should work

We Fair has drawn up a list of progressive welfare policies for political parties to consider. Among them are state subsidies for children, free lifelong education, equal access to the universal healthcare scheme, the right of all Thais own to land and property, and a pension scheme for all elderly citizens.

We Fair also suggests that maternity leave be extended to 180 days and that the government ensure fair remuneration and jobs for all Thais. Benefits offered via the social security scheme should also be improved, it said.

“We recommend these policies in the hope of improving Thais’ quality of life,” Nitirat said. “We will promote them to political parties because they are key players in a democracy.”

By Thai PBS World’