Readers' Submissions

Middle Income Thais Live Better Than Low Income Americans

  • Written by Hoboken
  • August 9th, 2014
  • 8 min read



I wrote a couple of submissions a while back that focused on the subject of class consciousness, or the specific issues of what more commonly gets labeled 'class struggle'. These essays got a lot of harsh responses. To many the term 'class struggle' implies Marxism and communism. But on the contrary, I consider myself an advocate of free market economics. After reading some recent articles, I felt like broaching the topic yet again.

I do not necessarily believe that a poor Thai has it better than a poor American. The amenities Americans (and Western Europeans) take for granted would seem like grand luxury to a Thai who sleeps under a fan at night.

However, the average Thai (a Thai at the median income level, around $375USD per month) lives better than the average poor American, who's income hovers around 1K per month. Cursory research with Google brought up these statistics, so I could be off but I can attest that some of the year I myself live on 1K per month, though my work ebbs and flows and during peak months I can make that much in a week.

Now take the price of an average meal eaten out of the house, in Thailand this can go for anywhere from half a USD on up to $2.00. Here in the U.S. I can never really get anything near a filling meal for any less than $4.50. I know of one place here in San Diego where I can get a small rice and chicken bowl for $3. This is rarer than a more familiar sum of $8 – 10 however.

So a Thai in Bangkok living on $375 per month will be able to access more reasonably priced food at less than a third of the price someone in the U.S. living on 1k per month will. This doesn't delve into cooking at home but I imagine the prices of food from a market here stateside differ from market prices in Thailand by a similar amount i.e. the ingredients for a home cooked meal there will cost less than 25% of what a similar meal will cost in the U.S. This while a poor American lives on thrice what the average Thai does.

These numbers speak. I would never want to be a poor Thai, but being a middle of the road Thai seems better than being a poor American. A lot of those disillusioned with Thailand seem to compare living as a relatively well to do Thai would to living as an upper middle class Brit, Aussie, or American would.

With that comparison, of course I'd rather live in the U.S.! The quality of living by most (but NOT all, depending on perspective) standards is on average much, much better in a U.S. city like Cleveland than it is in Chang Mai. In the West we have clean parks, regular services, and room to move (nevermind Cleveland weather).

If I were to take it a step further I could compare Bangkok to Hong Kong. The latter a glorious, clean, picturesque global city beyond compare. Better even than the 'center of the world' NYC in my opinion.

I would much rather live on 5k a month in HK than 1k a month in Bangkok. But again, HK does have its slums, and I'd rather live on 1k a month in BKK than 2k a month in HK. It all comes down to perspective. On 2k USD per month in Hong Kong you aren't going to have much if any room to enjoy things like massages, gym membership, classes, etc. Not to mention P4P.

Those who plan, like Stick, to bolt from Thailand can afford to, and I'd do the same were I in their shoes. But many guys live on social security retirement alone and have no residuals. They get by in Thailand on 2k USD a month and live not like kings but at least like a noble. In America 2k a month is nothing. I get by on it but I live very humbly. Most people would be uncomfortable here on only $2k.

Life in poverty here in the U.S. is horrible. It's demoralizing. Better it is in Europe or Oz for sure, places with better social safety nets. But there's this thing called 'Parkinson's Law'. In this particular discussion it would mean that 'poverty will grow to match the limits of social welfare.' Yes, social welfare I believe just removes the entrepreneurial incentive. As social services expand, so does the fraction of the population who relies on them.

I know people I grew up with who have made a career out of welfare. They get food stamps, charity, and social security disability. These people are not schizophrenics in wheel chairs. They could work, but the work is just not there for them. I have even started businesses with them in the past, unofficial, informal moving companies and carpet cleaning companies. We charged less than 'legitimate' operations and if we broke or damaged someone's property, we simply paid out of our own pockets rather than relying on insurance.

But the state still shut us down. We got issued warnings that if we continued to operate without diving through the 'proper' bureaucratic hoops, we would get fined and slapped with citations. These bureaucratic hoops included expensive, time consuming processes like getting bonded, licensed, and insured. Meanwhile all we were trying to do was make an honest living and barter directly with consumers for our time and labor.

Now, a country like Thailand has a whole different system, and I would argue that perhaps in a certain sense it is better to be poor in Thailand than the U.S.A. I am much more familiar however with how Mexico operates, so I will use it as an example of contrast.

In Mexico, if you want to open a taco stand, sell fruit on the beach, or breathe fire at crosswalks for the change of entertained idle drivers paused at red lights, you just do it. You want to build a house and have the property, you just do it. No permission necessary, save for perhaps minimal bribes to low level officials.

Sure, such a system entails more risk, and if your house falls on top of you, it's your own fault for not adhering to certain safety measures. No 'State Board of Housing Permits' will be there for you to blame because you got their green light after a application process and there will be no onto court to recoup losses.

In Los Angeles, years ago, a friend pointed out that you almost never see Mexicans begging. Blacks and whites, yes. Americans, yes. But never Mexicans. A Mexican will stand all day in the sun at a Home Depot (local large home improvement warehouse chain) waiting for someone to hire them for general labor in the hot sun at less than minimum wage. But he will NOT ask 'can you spare any change?'

It's just not part of their culture. If anyone says Mexico is the way it is because the natives are lazy they haven't a clue what the hell they're on about. Mexicans are some of the hardest working, assiduous people I know. They frequently work multiple jobs, 7 days a week, for years, without vacation. These jobs are ones that Americans balk at. Greasy, dirty, dangerous work.

My point being, that more opportunities abound for people in an up and coming industrializing country than one where growth has peaked and gotten regulated. Here in America if you start a taco stand selling home made fare with fresh stone ground masa (corn meal) tortillas, you will get shut down unless you kiss someone's ass, pay expensive fees, and fill out a mound of paperwork. Taco Bell meanwhile, a horrible chain that sells utter garbage, thrives. The land gets increasingly dominated by corporations while entrepreneurial spirit dies a slow, steady death.

Of course I omit lots of variables here, and different factors come into play. But I love to use street food as an example. Most people selling street food in Thailand don't have some permit from some bureaucratic agency. They haven't applied to do so, waited, applied again, payed a fee, registered, and purchased insurance.

I like this chaos. I don't want to live in Scandinavia where I can always be sure the food will never make me sick. Where's the adventure in that? Without danger and risk, we lose what makes us human. But I digress. Hopefully the reader understands what I am after here.

If you have the money, sure, the West can be a better place to retire to than Thailand. But if you don't Thailand beats the West any day.

If I can, I would prefer to retire in Hong Kong or perhaps Kuala Lumpur or Singapore over Thailand. And if I have enough income I would indeed choose my home of Los Angeles over Bangkok. But sometimes, life does not go as we hope. I hope for the best, but anticipate the worst. And I could do a lot worse than Bangkok on $2,000 USD a month.


Stickman's thoughts:

It has often been said that Thailand can be a poor man's paradise – and I think there is truth in that!