By Erich Parpart
Research cited by the TFF indicates that in the past three decades, inequality has worsened even though the Kingdom’s gross domestic product has quadrupled in 25 years.
A socio-economic survey by the National Statistical Office in 2011 suggested that almost half of Thailand’s households were living on less than Bt15,000 per month. The poorest were living on an average of Bt4,300 per month, and only a quarter of these were farming families.
The highest-income households have doctors and lawyers as their heads and are living on an average of Bt90,000 per month.
The TFF stressed that the gap between the lowest and highest household incomes had not decreased despite the country’s economic growth, since the income of the richest households has more than tripled (3.2 times) in the past 25 years while that of the poorest has not.
"This means that it is even harder now for the poorest households to catch up with the richest households in terms of income," said Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput, executive chairman of the TFF.
Research also shows that Thailand’s inequality of wealth is one of the worst in the world, ranked at 162 out of 174 countries.
Sirikanya Tansakun, senior analyst at TFF, said 38 per cent of the accumulative incomes of all households was enjoyed by the richest households, while only 2 per cent was being used by the poorest households. She said 57 per cent of all wealth was held by the richest while the poorest households were ridden with debt. As well, 60 per cent of the registered land in the country is controlled by the richest households.
Other findings from the TFF’s research show that among the poorest households, those living on about Bt4,300 per month, 40 per cent are elderly folk whose main income is money sent to them by younger family members.
This painted a picture of an ageing society, since the poorest are now elderly citizens in a low-income family, not farmers as many people assume. TFF research even showed that 9 per cent of the richest households with an average income of Bt90,000 per month are farmers living in the South, while the areas with the poorest households are still in the Northeast and the North.
Sethaput said part of the current social conflict derived from the lack of equal opportunity, since some groups of people, mainly the poor, feel that they have been and are being treated unfairly by their government and other sectors of society.
He compared inequality of opportunity and the feeling of unfairness to a foot race. If you lose a race where everyone started from the same position, it is acceptable that the fastest wins, but if the victor won because he started in a better position, the loser will always have the feeling of injustice. Sethaput added that if the starting position continued to get wider and wider, some might not even participate at all. "If the rules are fair and allow everyone to compete equally from the same or nearly the same starting point, the unequal result at the end of the race will be more acceptable."
He urged the new government to tackle the problem of unequal opportunity through investment in quality education and for an end to populist policies, such as the rice-pledging scheme and first-car policy, since they only benefited certain groups and not society as a whole.
He also stressed that the problem was not finding the budget to support policies to equalise opportunity; the problem was in the way such policies were managed.
"Giving teachers more money will not solve the problem [the poor quality of education], since the average wage of Thai teachers is at par with many countries in Asia. And the number of students in the classroom is not the issue, since class sizes in South Korea and Finland are similar to Thailand but their kids have way better PISA scores," Sethaput said, referring to the Programme for International Student Assessment.
For a tangible solution, he gave the example of Uganda, where public schools actually put up signs to show how much funding they are receiving from the government, in order to increase accountability and scrutiny from the parents to add pressure to the school.
Another example Sethaput gave was from Shanghai, where teachers get together within the school to improve their quality of teaching through peer review instead of waiting for special training from the government.