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Straight to the Point : It's time to start building a welfare state

Thailand is a middle income country with a majority of the working population employed in the industrial and service sectors. No longer are the days when most of the population were provided basic food and housing security by the land they owned and worked on. With our rapid economic growth over the past two decades has come ever increasing income disparities between rich and poor, urban and rural populations.

This is partly because our economic growth has not been matched by equivalent growth in comprehensive social security for the population.

The need to develop Thailand into a welfare state has become an important issue for civil society movements.

During the drafting of the present constitution, many different civil society networks including political movements, labour movements, NGOs and community organisations came up with agendas for political and social reforms which they proposed for inclusion in the new constitution.

Remarkably, proposals on social welfare reform coming from different networks turned out to be very similar. The common concept was of an integrated social welfare system providing comprehensive and equal social security for all people living in Thailand with regard to health, education, housing, land tenure, employment, pensions, and public services. This is what is commonly known as the welfare state.

The welfare state is a social security system in which every person has the right to a guaranteed quality of life, which the state has a duty to ensure. Everyone gets equal rights and benefits, but is taxed differently according to their wealth and income.

Thus, while wealthy and poor families would have the same access to the same standards of health and education, wealthy families would pay higher contributions to the costs of the system through progressive income taxation, and various kinds of wealth taxes.

In this way, the welfare state helps to reduce income disparities and at the same time ensure a reasonable standard of living for everyone.

The welfare state should not be confused with the "social safety net", which is a concept of providing subsidised health, education, housing etc, only to low income families who are unable to pay for the services themselves.

This is a charity-based concept rather than a rights-based approach, and only helps to provide minimum or substandard social support to the lowest income groups. It requires means testing and does not provide a standardised quality of life for everyone. Nor does it help much in terms of reducing income disparity.

Under civil society proposals, the welfare state in Thailand would include free health services for all, free education from kindergarten to university (covering all costs), comprehensive housing programmes, land reform to ensure land tenure for small farmers, unemployment benefits, universal pensions, support for single parents and people with disabilities, and low-cost subsidised state utilities and transportation services.

Of course, all of this would be paid for through progressive income taxes, inheritance taxes, capital gains taxes, land taxes, etc. We would need a comprehensive reform of the tax system in order to eliminate loopholes and effectively cover the whole population including the self-employed. While higher income families would pay higher taxes, they would also enjoy all the benefits of the welfare system.

There will inevitably be arguments that Thailand cannot afford a welfare state system. Recently my political scientist brother, Giles, responded that the present per capita GDP of Thailand is approximately equivalent to that of the United Kingdom at the time when the welfare state was established there, shortly after World War Two.

Thailand already has in place some components of a welfare state, namely the universal health insurance programme and the social insurance system. Also, there are already substantial state subsidies for education.

Unfortunately, none of the political parties running in the present elections are offering a welfare state system on their agendas. While some are advertising certain social benefits such as "really free" school education, or a "people's pension" in order to attract votes, no party is offering to reform the tax system with greater progressive taxation required for development of the welfare state.

This is, of course, because all present political parties represent the interests of the wealthy rather than the poor. All they want to give the poor is charity in exchange for votes. Civil society will have to work hard to achieve its vision of the Thai welfare state.

Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present the Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development. Comments are welcome at: ungjon@usa.net

First Published in Bangkok Post