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Bangkok's Working Class Communities Face Tougher Times as Prices Soar

All over the world, working class and poor families bear the brunt of rising food and fuel costs. In Bangkok, Ron Corben visits a slum area to see how people are coping. He reports that charities are stepping up efforts to help families, as fears grow that things will only get worse.

In the bustle of Bangkok's inner city lies the working class area of the Klong Toey port.

In this crowded neighborhood, just surviving has never been easy. Now, it is growing even tougher.

In Thailand, inflation is at 10 year highs, with rice - the country's staple food - doubling in price already this year. The country's central bank warns inflation will get even worse over the months ahead.

In the Klong Toey morning market, residents gather at small outdoor restaurants as shop owners start the day. The business people are pessimistic.

Lasalin sells newspapers and magazines. She says the government has not paid attention to people's needs.

She says the government has been troubled by political protests and survival over recent months rather than helping the people's economic problems. And, she complains, everything is more expensive.

A man who sells charms and necklaces agrees.

People, he says, have less money. And oil and other goods are costing more, which affects families.

Most in the Klong Toey area earn little more than $150 a month. Many live close to national poverty line of just under $100 a month. And wages are dropping as the country copes with higher prices.

In Thailand there has been a sharp drop in the number of people characterized as poor in recent years. But still, the government lists almost 10 percent of the country's 65 million people as poor.

Father Joe Maier, a Catholic priest who has worked in Klong Toey for three decades, fears that progress made in the area's economy over the past few years will be lost if things do not improve.

"This is a community, we don't grow anything around here - we buy and sell and work and sell our sweat," he said. "And it's getting worse and nothing's going to get better until somebody really tries to do something and we don't see that happening."

Maier sees signs of increasing economic stress in Klong Toey. Families are starting to cut back, with children's education often the first casualty.

"There's more kids coming to us, there is more kids on the streets, there's more kids who can't go to school," he said. "The price of rice is unbelievable. People who are used to salaries say of 4,000 baht (125 dollars) - now that salary is worth 3,000 baht (94 dollars) at the most - so they've got to cut corners - they've got to eat."

Maier oversees a community center and since January the center has stepped up spending to help families send their children to school.

Increasing numbers of people are seeking emergency rice donations, leading the center to reduce the amount given out to three kilograms per family, from five kilograms.

Maier worries that the center lacks the capacity help more families.

"Oh Lord, oh Lord I don't know what we can do - we can keep feeding kids and we can still teach them in school - we're a place of hope and joy - hope no matter what," he said. "We'll carry on. It's a lot more drastic than it was three months ago - if you come back three months from now it's going to be much, much worse."

Rising costs can have tragic consequences. Nitaya Pakkayaka works at the community center. She says for one man, the financial pressures became too much.

"They had a father who committed suicide drinking a poison because he has two daughters who go to the school and he doesn't have the money to pay the school fee and the school sending the letter asking the money, so he is drinking the poison to kill himself," Nitaya said. "And his wife ran away because she doesn't want to take any responsibility. These problems are happening more and more in the society in Klong Toey."

The Thai government has begun giving food coupons to the poor. But many aid groups question whether the program will reach the hardest hit. The real problem, say aid workers, is that the costs of day to day essentials just keep rising - and there is little end in sight to the higher prices.