This article reflects on the pivotal role of subsistence in the livelihood strategies of rural Tibetan households within the context of rapid economic and social transition. It argues that subsistence is valued by these households because it provides the material foundations upon which they can choose to act in a variety of strategic ways in response to dislocating change. First, the apparent paradox between income poverty and asset wealth is examined and the concept of “subsistence capacity” is suggested as a lens to understand aspects of wealth that are difficult to capture through conventional income or human development measures. Second, this paradox is related to the resistance of many rural Tibetans to relying on low wage manual jobs as a main source of income, despite the fact that such jobs would seem to be the most appropriate for their transition out of agriculture given their apparent income poverty and their low levels of education. The argument commonly cited in the Chinese literature that this employment behavior derives from “backwardness” is contended. The article concludes with a reflection on the consequences of recent government resettlement strategies in pastoral areas.