But the vegetable trader doesn’t dare close the stall, even for a short 15-minute lunch, because she is afraid of missing that rare customer. She buys a small morsel of steamed glutinous rice that she can eat without going anywhere.
VietNamNet Bridge - Using her facemask to pad the sweat on her suntanned brow, Nguyen Kim Thu looks dispiritedly at her stall, which is still filled with vegetables, as few customers have called since she opened early in the morning.
“I know there are few customers at noon. But it’s good to grab even one more customer. Vegetables have been selling slowly for several days and I haven’t made any profit,” the 45-year-old woman said.
Thu, an employee at an engineering factory in Hanoi, has to sell vegetables for extra income because she has been asked to take days off from work by the company, which is going through tough financial times.
She buys wholesale vegetables every morning at 3 a.m. and resells them at an open-air market on the dusty and crowded pavement on Minh Khai Street in Hanoi.
Thu’s husband, a retired blacksmith, runs a small motorbike repair shop on Bach Mai Street. But he also has trouble earning money as he has no formal training and motorists prefer taking their bikes to branded repair shops.
“I make VND40,000 (US$2.2) a day on average. On lucky days, maybe VND60,000-70,000,” says Thu.
“My husband gets only VND30,000. The money is not enough to cover our living expenses in the city. I always have to borrow money from my relatives in order to live.”
High inflation in the last two years has hurt the poor. Prices climbed 2.99 percent in October from a year earlier after gaining 2.42 percent in September, according to the General Statistics Office. Inflation had reached 28.3 percent in August 2008, the highest since at least 1992.
Thu said with the VND30,000 she earns a day, she could buy a kilo of pork two years ago, but now she can barely get half a kilo.
Despite the hard life, Thu’s lot is better than motorbike-taxi driver Than Van Loi, as his meager income threatens to stop his children’s education.
“My wife is unemployed, and my income is not enough to live, let alone pay school fees for my sons. If I do not make enough money, my oldest son may have to quit school and go to work at a carwash,” he said.
His two sons’ school fees account for some 15 percent of his monthly income of nearly VND1.5 million, which only barely covers the four-member family’s living expenses for a little more than a fortnight.
However, Loi, like many other migrants, does not want to return to their villages, as even this meager income is bigger than their earnings from rice cultivation. His family farms land, but their subsistence still depends on the money he sends from the city, as earnings from the cultivation is just VND1-2 million for each harvest.
Loi cannot buy any insurance for his family. “Without social and health insurance, I do not know I’ll manage if I fall sick.”
Although localities offer free health insurance cards to the poor, Loi cannot benefit from it as he is a migrant, and above the official poverty line.
Hanoi, after its annexation of the former Ha Tay Province, has adopted a new poverty line of income below VND500,000 per person per month for the inner city and below VND330,000 for the outskirts.
Thu and Loi are bonafide residents of the capital city, albeit very poor. Then there are thousands of migrants from all over the country who come to major cities in the country in search of employment, who are not registered residents and might not even be counted among the urban poor when these statistics are compiled.
Who are the urban poor?
“We have focused more on poverty in rural areas and it’s time to correctly assess the seriousness of urban poverty to have adequate policies,” said an expert from an antipoverty consultation agency, declining to be named.
Saroj Dash of ActionAid Vietnam, an international nongovernmental organization, also urged policy makers to develop an accurate understanding of urban poverty. “Urban poverty alleviation cannot be conducted effectively without a thorough understanding of the scale and role of the migrants,” he said.
The expert from the consultation agency said, “Migration is indispensable. But it is necessary to reform immigration management. We should manage them with their codes like identification cards, instead of the family registration books like we are doing now.”
“Urban management policies often create constraints on the livelihoods of poor people. For instance, policies to ban or restrict street hawking and self-made vehicles in inner-city areas will make difficulties for the poor in earning their living from these jobs,” Dash said.
He said increasing vulnerabilities such as financial and food crisis, unstable conditions of employment and migration are the main symptoms of the rising trend of urban poverty rate.
Dash said designing support programs for specific disadvantaged groups was necessary to tackle urban poverty. He called for improved local governance towards poverty alleviation and for the labor union’s role promoted in supporting migrant workers.
The Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs has said it is building a draft social welfare strategy that expands the welfare umbrella to include more people.
WHY ARE THEY POOR?
The incomes of many people living at subsistence or just above subsistence level have not kept pace with inflation, in fact they have had to work even harder to earn the same amount while getting less of the essential goods they need.
The increasing gap between the rich and the poor, a constant feature over the last two decades, has also been a factor in increasing urban poverty. As more people in rural areas lose their land and other sources of income, they are forced to hire their labor out in urban areas.
Policies that are ostensibly aimed at growth and poverty alleviation at the same time often achieve the former at the cost of making more families vulnerable.
Studies have found rising landlessness and indebtedness in rural areas as key poverty causing factors, but major land policy initiatives like the one that promotes large-scale farming in the interests of agricultural efficiency only exacerbate the problem, said one researcher who declined to be named.