Thailand recently announced that it will put into action a national social assistance program for poor families. Such a program can help reduce poverty significantly. It would also move Thailand into the growing ranks of middle-income countries, such as China, Malaysia, Brazil, Turkey and the Philippines, that provide the poor with a ‘safety net’.
This week, the cabinet approved a package worth around 42 billion baht to finance cash allowances for the poorest and other subsidies for almost 12 million low-income families. For many poor families in Thailand, regular social assistance means their children being able to finish school or not going to bed hungry. For farmers, regular social assistance can help cushion the impact of natural disasters such as floods and droughts, which can wipe away a lifetime of savings.
Global evidence suggests that regular cash transfers can enable poor families to meet basic needs such as food, healthcare and education, and that they continue to work just as hard. Such studies have addressed concerns in many countries that cash transfers are mere handouts that encourage complacency. They have shown instead that a helping hand improves nutritional and educational outcomes, and the capacity of individuals and communities to cope with shocks, ultimately resulting in lower poverty and inequality.
But, according to the recently published World Bank Thailand Systematic Country Diagnostic, accurate targeting is key. An effective and efficient social assistance program consistently and reliably identifies those who need support the most.
Here is where challenges set in. With work in the informal sector so prevalent in Thailand, verifying household incomes can be difficult. Experience from other countries can help.
Where self-declared income may not be reliable, other information such as land and vehicle ownership status, educational levels of adults, and presence of household members with disabilities can be useful. Different countries screen these non-income indicators in different ways. Some simply tally the other welfare indicators for each family, while others do a more complex calculation of how important each factor is in predicting if a family is poor. Whatever the approach, countries often supplement such information with community-based validation to take advantage of local knowledge. Thailand is using such an approach, with information on employment status, property ownership and savings to help determine who is low income.
Developing countries also use “social registries” to cross-check indicators of household welfare. These data platforms allow cross-checking of household welfare indicators, ranging from land and car ownership to social security participation, and are used by multiple public programs as a common source of information.
The most comprehensive social registries include not only program beneficiaries, but the larger population. Pakistan includes around 90 percent of its population in its social…