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Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung returns to Myanmar every summer to do research. Here, Mount Popa is in the background.
March 15, 2019

Life on $2 to $5 a day: how people in Myanmar cope with poverty

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  • Lowell
Personal experience led to political science professor's research

Growing up in Burma, Prof. Ardeth Thawnghmung ate little meat and wore hand-me-downs. But she was more fortunate than most: Her parents were university professors, so they kept her in school.

Thawnghmung, now chair of UML’s Political Science Department, started college in 1985 in Burma. However, after massive student-led protests in 1988, the military regime closed all colleges and universities. 

To earn money in hopes of continuing her studies abroad, Thawnghmung sold vegetables, milk and eggs door to door. She became a “pig broker,” helping neighbors get their pigs butchered in exchange for money and meat. She bartered and bargained over pennies. 

Three years later, Thawnghmung got a student visa to attend a community college in California, arriving in the United States with only $65. She completed her Ph.D. in 2001 and began teaching, coming to UMass Lowell in 2004. 

Now a U.S. citizen, she returns every year to Burma – since renamed Myanmar – to do research. Her work informs her courses on political analysis, Southeast Asian politics, and democracy and development. It also opens up research and hands-on learning opportunities for students in Myanmar and Lowell.

Recently, with support from a Fulbright-Hays grant, Thawnghmung wrote a book on how people in Myanmar survive on $2 to $5 a day and how their coping mechanisms affect political structures. “Everyday Economic Survival in Myanmar” draws on in-depth interviews with hundreds of people in different jobs and areas of the country. Recently, Thawnghmung sat down to talk about it. 

Q: The average income in Myanmar is $2 to $5 a day, or $1,000 a year. That’s incomprehensible to most Americans. How do people live on that little, and what do they spend most of their money on?

A: Food. If you earn only a couple of dollars a day, you spend all of your money on food, and it’s still not enough. In countries with lower levels of economic development like Myanmar – and many nations in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South and Central America – most people face a daily struggle for subsistence.

So they adopt two main economic strategies. First, they try to cut down on expenses. In Myanmar, this could mean eating only steamed rice and fermented fish paste at meals. Most people buy “medicines” from street vendors instead of going to the doctor. In the cities, where housing is especially scarce, 12 or more family members will live in a single room. 

People also share resources and pool their labor. They grow their own food and barter with each other. They rely on their families, networks, communities and religious institutions for support.

The second strategy is to try and increase their income. People will work two or three jobs. Parents pull their children out of school and put them to work. Most villages have only an elementary school that goes through fourth grade; after that, the children may be sent out to work in factories, as housemaids or as “tea boys” in restaurants. 

Q: You also look at psychological and political coping strategies. Could you give some examples?

A: One of the main political coping strategies was and is corruption. Because the military government banned any form of dissent or labor organizing, a culture of bribery and favoritism developed. But when poor people have to spend money bribing officials for services that are supposed to be free, that just perpetuates the cycle of poverty. 

I also researched psychological and emotional coping strategies. Many people turn to religion or astrology as a source of hope, or at least as a way to make peace with their fate. One of the most destructive and widespread coping mechanisms is illegal gambling. People desperate to win a big sum end up with debts they can’t pay, leading to the breakup of families.

Q: How has economic coping changed since the country began moving toward limited democratic government a decade ago?

A: The political opening has given poor people more opportunities to protest and negotiate over grievances. There have been quite a few protests against land-grabbing – when a corporation, or the military on behalf of a corporation, seizes land from the traditional occupants for an “economic opportunity zone,” factory sites in cities or natural resources in rural areas. Workers also have the right to organize for better pay and conditions.

There has also been more foreign aid and investment, although foreign support has been hurt by the recent violence against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

Myanmar is a very ethnically divided country, and economic coping strategies are determined in part by ethnicity. The majority Burman population has advantages, especially when it comes to getting higher-level government and military jobs, while ethnic and religious minorities, including Muslims and Christians, face discrimination. Some people actually change their religion or their ethnic identity in order to secure better economic opportunities.

Q: How does your research benefit students?

A: I teach Introduction to Political Analysis, which exposes students to both qualitative and quantitative research methods. I use my research in Myanmar to talk about the challenges of collecting data in the field while ensuring the safety and well-being of the people who talk to me. I have also brought students in the Honors College and the Global Studies Ph.D. program to Myanmar as research assistants.

More than a decade ago, I co-founded a self-help group for Burmese refugees in Lowell, SayDaNar. Every semester, I supervise 10 to 15 UML students who get service learning credit for working in the afterschool program for children there. It’s a beautiful way of engaging students with the community. They learn more about the challenges that refugee children face – and they gain management and fundraising experience, because I give our students a lot of autonomy to improve the program.

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