Insufficient Funds

Love and money are deeply intertwined in Pomona College Professor Hung Cam Thai’s Insufficient Funds, an exploration of the role remittances play in the lives of low-income Vietnamese families in the U.S.

Hung Thai

Prof. Hung Cam Thai

The book not only is the first published on the distinct, but related, topics of giving, spending, and receiving money among different members of transnational families — it is now the recipient of the American Sociological Association’s award for the best book on Asia in 2015.

Critics have called the book a “brilliant landmark study,” “a mesmerizing narrative of money and migration,” and a “ major contribution to our understanding of the culture of remittances and transnational families in the world today.”

As a Vietnamese immigrant himself, coming to the United States as a boat refugee in the early 1980s, investigating this topic had profoundly personal meaning for Thai. He grew up very poor in Mississippi and his family engaged in remittances, with a family member in Vietnam losing all of the money his father gave due to a business fiasco, he says.

Remittances are not uncommon. In his research, Thai found that many Vietnamese family relationships were “monetized, meaning that the basis for affection and love frequently revolved around money,” with 60 percent of immigrant families in the U.S. sending money back to their family remaining in Vietnam, often at great cost to their own financial stability.

These families may earn enough money to put them over the federally defined poverty line (which for a family of four is $23,000), but many are living in conditions that can be characterized as poor—making them part of a demographic group that some call the “missing class,” often neglected in public discussions about social welfare and job opportunities, says Thai.

“Many give much more than they have, really beyond their means, and so while they are able to support a new ‘lifestyle’ among their non-migrant families in Vietnam, the givers often deny themselves basic necessities,” says Thai. “Many of them go into extreme debt—and yet while doing so, they often talk about how it is a sacrifice worth making.”

But recipients are rarely aware of the sacrifices because the givers rarely reveal their financial fragility. By maintaining the image of having “made it” in the U.S., demonstrating that they have achieved the “American Dream,” givers gain much deference and respect from their non-migrant relatives. This is also compounded by the fact that immigrants often spend money lavishly when they make return visits to the homeland, always under circumstances in which their family members do not see them working in low-wage precarious jobs. Thai notes that low-wage workers tend to give more money to family back home than high-wage earners.

Twelve percent of the world’s population live in transnational families, where relatives live in at least two different nations, and in most of these families, there is a lot of money flowing between nations, Thai says, with studies showing that the monetary gross value of remittances in these families is about $5 trillion USD. This number includes money sent from a distance, money spent when migrants return to their country of origin for occasional visits, as well as money generated from investments and businesses from migrant money.

The notion of monetized family relationships might disturb Westerners, apart from money given to children by parents, and sometimes adult children to elderly parents, Thai says. But that’s not the case in many cultures of the developing world, especially among Vietnamese immigrants. Having conducted 121 interviews, Thai heard stories he called both sad and liberating; sad for the devastating financial losses incurred, and liberating for the enormous depth of affection and love that was signaled by the giving.

Thai argues that poor immigrants have a “transnational advantage” compared to other groups such as poor African Americans and poor whites, because they have a place where they can give and spend. They may be struggling in the U.S., but their money goes far abroad.

“These poor immigrants gain some amount of dignity and worth that they otherwise may never experience if they do not have a homeland to return to in the developing world, given the ways in which members of the low wage labor force can barely survive with their earnings in the United States,” he says.

Thai’s experiences in his own life with these very real gains and losses connected him deeply to the people he interviewed.

“I authentically felt what many of my respondents felt when they talked about decisions on spending and giving money, for example, about deliberately maxing out their credit cards to give to family because it brought them so much personal satisfaction,” says Thai.

“It’s dignity broadly construed, including feelings of affection to their loved ones, feeling a tremendous sense of achievement and self-worth, and above all, feeling tremendous satisfaction knowing that they have helped out very poor family members back home.”

Thai is Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies at Pomona College, where he serves as Director of the Pacific Basin Institute. He also is the author of For Better or for Worse: Vietnamese International Marriages in the New Global Economy (2008).