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Investing in early childhood crucial

In 2020, the Prayut administration declared its commitment to early childhood development and promised to give the caregivers of all preschool children a monthly stipend of 600 baht the following year. The policy, if implemented, will be a sound investment in human resources.

Research worldwide on early childhood development reaches the same conclusion: A child’s first six years are the most crucial because a child’s brain grows most rapidly during this time.

Since 90% of brain development happens during this phase, a failure to help children grow healthily at this time will affect their intellectual faculties when they grow up.

Unfortunately, it would appear, this pledge was just lip service.

Under the 2017 constitution, universal childcare support is the government’s duty. The charter also makes it clear the government must provide a budget that targets different needs and age groups.

A study by the Thai Health Promotion Foundation also shows investment in early childhood development yields seven times higher social returns.

Yet the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security did not include the scheme in its annual budget. As a result, more than two million young children under six are suffering because their parents were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and joblessness.

There are about 4.3 million children under six years old in Thailand. But only 2.3 million children whose parents earn less than 100,000 baht a year are eligible to receive the monthly grant of 600 baht a month.

In other words, they need to be dirt poor to get state assistance.

Due to red tape and state inefficiency, more than 30% of targeted children under six are not included in the cash allowance scheme, according to the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). That is nearly 700,000 poor children falling through the cracks.

For the past 10 years, the Coalition on Universal Child Welfare led by former human rights commissioner Sunee Chaiyaros has been calling on the government to expand current child support grants to all children under six. It is a valid call.

Inequality and wealth disparity in Thailand are among the worst in the world. If left unaddressed, such gross inequalities will fodder a myriad of social problems and intensify political instability.

Universal welfare schemes are an effective way to bridge the gap.

Thailand is also ageing rapidly. The country needs a healthy young population to keep the economy productive to support its ageing population.

Giving 600 baht a month to only half of the children under six is not enough to strengthen the future workforce.

The TDRI compares the children who receive the 600-baht monthly stipends with those who do not, and the findings are clear: Those in the scheme eat better, grow more and have better access to health care services.

Opponents of universal child support grants often express concerns that parents will misuse the money for their children. The TDRI studies show such fears are groundless.

The government already gives universal education support for children and youth from Prathom One to Mathayom Six.

Generally, they are in the 7–18 age group. This 12-year free education scheme helps bridge social and economic inequalities.

To do well in schools, however, children in the 0–6 age group must receive proper food and care. Waiting until they enter primary schools to help them is simply too late.

Another big question is how much to give. The Coalition on Universal Child Welfare believes 600 baht is too low and proposes 3,000 baht as a decent amount to ensure a child’s healthy development.

Universal health care; free education for children in schools; universal monthly stipends for people over 60.

Thailand is heading in the right direction in providing such welfare programmes to improve human resources and quality of life.

It also shows that resistance against universal child support grants is not about a lack of state money, but a lack of commitment to early childhood development.

Children grow every day. The child development policy cannot wait. The government must keep its promise.

If the 3,000-baht proposal is not possible, the government should consider starting at 800 baht, then increase it by 100 baht every year until reaching at least 1,500 baht, which is half the civic groups’ proposal.

Whatever the amount, the support for children under six must be universal. If it still allows millions of preschool children to suffer hunger and slow development, the government’s slogan that children are the country’s future will be shown as mere hypocrisy.

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