Boost opportunities, not handouts
By every standard, Oui is a quintessentially street smart and hardworking Klong Toey resident. She was born in a shanty of the Klong Toey slum -- known as the first slum in the capital.
Our paths crossed last year when I interviewed her and 29 other families for my master's thesis on intergenerational social mobility among the urban poor. At that time, she was 35, with a five-year-old son to feed. She had just lost her job at a warehouse and needed to take on any menial jobs that came along.
The economic situation had just started to slide as the Covid-19 pandemic erupted.
A year later, life keeps spiralling down for Oui and other low-income residents. The Klong Toey community is the latest epicentre of a major cluster infection. Many employers have suspended the jobs of workers living in Klong Toei, where nearly 1,200 cases were reported last week.
"I'm not sure when my life can return to the pre-Covid era," she said in our latest phone communication. Oui has told me that she "was once an optimistic person", with faith that her son would be better off than her parents' generation.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic gave her second thoughts. "I once thought that my generation will be better than my mum's. But now I am back to square one," she said, and laughed bitterly.
Oui has never shied away from hard work. What troubles her the most is that she cannot find enough money to feed her son with good food. For Oui, Covid-19 hit at the worst time -- a watershed moment during her child's improved cognitive development. Now, her son and other kids in the community are forced to live with stress.
When digging into her family background, I realised the pandemic is not the first crisis to hit her family.
Oui's mother, a former factory worker, lost her job during the "Tom Yam Koong" Asian financial crisis in 1997 caused by currency speculation and toxic debt. Oui's family was the epitome of resilience. Her hardworking mum struggled to find money to send Oui to high school and university.
Oui chose vocational education in a low-ranking school. She did not get a quality education or adequate skills to enjoy a white-collar job in the labour market.
Her story is a tale of Klong Toey's residents; other families I interviewed told similar stories. Crises, either through the economic crash or crippling accidents, disrupted the social mobility of low-income parents. As a result, their children will not be able to enjoy a decent education and quality of life. The young generation didn't move upward on the social mobility scale, but rather stagnated in a low-rung tier of social and economic success.
I interviewed 30 families, half of which are from the Klong Toey slum. Their parents were unskilled workers migrating into Bangkok during the late 1960s to 1980s, a period in which Thailand's economic development took flight and offered millions of jobs to unskilled labourers.
Most of them did grasp opportunities on offer in the city. They should have paved a brighter future for their children. But my study found this was not always the case.
Twenty-eight out of 30 children representing each family, aged 30.8 on average, achieved upward mobility in education due to the government's educational expansion policy in past decades. Despite 19 of them getting better work than their parents, only eight enjoyed jobs with higher incomes than their parents.
When looking at the quality of their education and jobs, most of them studied in low-ranking schools, unable to access quality education. They work in unpromising jobs -- such as waitresses, deliverers, phone operators, receptionists, administrative assistants and repairmen. All receive low wages even though some hold bachelor's degrees.
Half of the children in the study lost jobs or experienced wage cuts during the pandemic, reflecting the insecurity and uncertainty of job positions during the crisis.
Social mobility is the moving of individuals, families, or groups up or down the social ladder. It can be measured by a number of outcomes, including educational levels, occupations, and incomes. A country where a large share of the population can achieve upward social mobility indicates inclusiveness and opportunity distribution among members of society that fosters economic growth.
In the big picture, the Global Social Mobility Index 2020 released by the World Economic Forum ranks Thailand at 55th out of 82 most socially mobile countries. The ranking is based on indicators in five key pillars: health, education, work, technology, and institutions.
When considering each indicator, Thailand's ranking is low in areas such as education quality and equity (62nd), social protection (69th), and inclusive institutions (69th), despite high work opportunity (14th).
The impact of Covid-19 on millions of households, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, proves that these indicators need to be addressed by the government to help people be resilient, quickly recover from any crises, and continue their journey to climb up the social ladder.
One challenge that needs attention is the investment in human capital and social protection. The government needs to invest more when it comes to education and human development.
Though the government has issued a series of stimulus packages, funded by the one-trillion-baht emergency loan decree, they focus on handling immediate situations such as responding to the pandemic and giving handouts. Some economists call this kind of spending "low-quality debt" as it does not promise a return.
A big part of this loan should be directed to public investment that supports inclusive policies, such as reskilling the unemployed, improving education, and building technology infrastructure accessible by all citizens.
The stories of people falling down during the pandemic should be taken as a warning sign as it could leave a long-term impact on the abilities of millions of families to climb up the social ladder. This ability is the source of the nation's prosperity and wellbeing in the post-Covid world.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.