Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

The Schooling Crunch
Asiaweek June 1999
The Asian financial crisis hits children hard

Little Songkiat Pongpanich is hopping from one foot to the other, eager to join his friends outside. His mother, Lamyong, smiles ruefully: “The children can still play,” she says. “It’s us adults who have to worry.” What concerns her most is the growing fear that her nine-year-old son will not receive the education she wants him to have. “His big sister is studying at technical college,” the mother says, “but I don’t think Songkiat will be able to do that. We will just have to try and go as far as we can with what we have.”

Before the recession, Lamyong’s husband owned a paint business, which brought in over $266 a month. The family was doing well, paying off installments on a car. When the Thai economy collapsed, the business went with it. Since then, the family of five has survived by taking on a variety of odd jobs. Earnings have dived, and the Pongpaniches now survive on an uncertain and fluctuating monthly income of about $133. “My husband drives a lorry transporting wood, but he often goes two weeks without a job,” Lamyong, 39, says, “then we have to survive on my earnings selling noodles.”

Luxuries have been eliminated from the family budget and necessities pruned. “We used to buy rice by the kilo, but the price has gone up now,” says Lamyong. “So we buy our rice in much smaller portions, depending on how much money we have. We have enough income to feed the children basic meals of rice and noodles, but there is no room for special things like in the past.”

Not that Songkiat notices much of this. As far as is possible, his family tries to protect him from the worst consequences of the crisis, making sure he has the best of whatever is available. As a result, he appears healthy and well fed. Help comes from the Duang Pratheep Foundation, a welfare organization active in the Klongtoey slum district where the family lives. It covers some of the cost of Songkiat’s books and other school materials. The school provides his uniform and shoes and supplies lunch free of charge. His mother says: “In the old days, the school would ask parents to buy a certain amount of books and materials. Now they don’t do that any more. Every little bit helps.”

The family remains cheerful and philosophical, despite the problems. “Sometimes we feel like giving up,” says Lamyong, “but we are trying to make a go of it. Compared to other people in this area, we are still fairly well off.” As for Songkiat, the crisis seems to mean one thing only: fewer treats. “Before, if I wanted toys or sweets, mom would buy me whatever I asked for,” he says. “But now she says she’ll have to think about it, or I have to wait until she has some more money. And we don’t go to Kentucky Fried Chicken any more.” He has still to learn that he may not be going to post-secondary school either.