Reliable data about poverty in Burma are scarce, but Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia, comparable to Cambodia and Laos on available measures and is almost certainly not on track to achieve any of the Millennium Development Goals. A household survey from 1997 found that 23 per cent. of people (11.2 million) had an income below subsistence level. The percentage of poor people earning less than $1 US a day is likely to be significantly higher than this. The same Government survey found that 70 per cent. of household expenditure was on food, an indicator of the vulnerability of poor people in Burma. There is widespread malnutrition, with one in three children aged 5 being moderately to severely malnourished. In 2001, 109 of every 1,000 children died before they reached the age of 5, double the East Asia and Pacific regional average. Maternal mortality is among the highest in the region. Only 40 per cent. of children complete five years of primary education.
Social sector spending in Burma fell steadily during the 1990s and the authorities now spend less than $1 per person each year on basic health care and education combined. This is one of the lowest levels of public investment in the world. Public sector salaries are a long way below a living wage and teachers, doctors and other public servants are forced to either supplement their income through unofficial charges or undertake additional income earning activities. Most poor people rely on informal, private healthcare providers, often receiving poor quality or ineffective treatment as a result. Although education has traditionally been highly valued in Burma, its quality is being undermined by under-investment in the crumbling public education system. HIV/AIDS is a major public health risk in Burma. Burma is one of three countries in Asia with a generalised HIV/AIDS epidemic: 420,000 people are estimated to be infected with the virus and prevalence continues to rise. Prevalence in pregnant women exceeds 2 per cent. indicating that the epidemic has spread from high-risk groups into the general population.
Many of the poorest and most vulnerable people live in the border areas and ethnic nationalities are among the poorest and most socially excluded people in Burma but there is considerable poverty throughout the country, in both rural and urban areas.