Magical Realism at the Border of Techies and the Poor

App for Louisiana food stamps

New Orleans    Don’t get me wrong, I am 1000% in favor of techies of all stripes and sizes trying to figure out a way to impact on the lives and fortunes of low and moderate income families. Nonetheless, when I read an article about JPMorgan Chase putting up $30 million through its foundation to create a Financial Solutions Lab to supposedly “build affordable financial services” within their financial industry, all my antennae immediately go up because for the life of me that sounds like a way for Chase to divert money into a tax exempt arm to do research and development for its core business, rather than anything to do with philanthropy. How jaded have I become?!?

The New York Times published a puff piece about the effort in a special section on something they called “fintech,” which I would recommend against ordering at a restaurant no matter how much you like seafood. They highlighted a company called Propel that seemed amazingly well intentioned and dedicated. They had thought of developing an application for a smartphone that would help lower income families apply for food stamps. They were sent with the other Chase lab rats to walk the “mean streets” of San Francisco to get a better sense of the needs of the poor. Did I really say San Francisco, one of the richest cities in the United States? Maybe they were looking to see how many lower income families had managed to stay in San Francisco…but I don’t want to get off my subject here. Anyway, Chase gave Propel a quarter of a million bucks, and they ended up switching over to develop an app to allow a low income family to be able to determine the balance they have left on their food stamp card.

I guess that’s a good thing, though in my experience most food stamp recipients can tell almost anyone within a penny how much they have on their card at any time day or night during any month you might want to ask. Or they walk to the corner store and find out, but, let’s stay positive here.

You will need a smartphone though for this app to help you. We have this nagging problem of the widening gap in internet access but according to various Pew Research surveys 74% of families making less than $30000 per year now have sometime access to the internet. 13% of families with internet access making less than $30000 can only do so with a smartphone, so for the subset of those who are also eligible for food stamps of that 13%, the app might have some value.

Of course smartphones cost money, and if a family making under $30000 can afford a smartphone, that doesn’t mean they can afford unlimited access to data of course. 48% in fact report on Pew surveys that they pretty regularly get cutoff from their smartphones because they don’t have the money to pay the bill. 30% also report that they regularly exhaust the minutes on their data plan so essentially have to cut themselves off from using their phones to access the internet.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is a solution looking for a problem. I’m just saying that this “fintech” pretense of supposedly helping low income families who are unbanked and victimized by their lack of affordable access to the financial system is way ahead of its time until there is equal access to the internet, the cost of devices are lowered, and the FCC forces the predatory telecoms to produce affordable plans for lower income families. In fact if Chase had been willing to really be charitable and invest $30 million in a campaign to make that happen PDQ in the US, then we would be talking about a real step forward where we could let a thousand apps bloom. Until then other than providing R&D for big banks, it seems the cart has once again jumped ahead of the horse.

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Only One Hand Clapping for FCC Expanded Lifeline Rule for Internet

indexNew Orleans   FCC Chairmen Tom Wheeler claimed the decision to expand Lifeline programs from telephones to the internet was a major breakthrough in closing the digital divide. This was a 3-2 decision on party lines. The majority at the FCC claim that this broadening application of the subsidy will “help millions of low-income households connect to the internet.”

The New York Times noted that “only about 40% of families making less than $25,000 a year can afford broadband while 95% making over $150,000 have high-speed internet at home.” The program will provide a monthly subsidy of $9.25 to access broadband. The eligibility for the program will begin with those eligible for either food stamps through the SNAP program or veterans benefits.

This must be a good thing, right? Why are we not applauding or at best have only one hand clapping this new FCC initiative?

Let’s look at just some of the reasons.

First, this program will NOT close the digital divide, and the subsidy is basically a subsidy for internet providers like Comcast, Times-Warner, Charter, Cox, and others, more than it is a subsidy for lower income families.

Why do I say this?

Well, let’s please remember that analysts argued several years ago when the FCC required Comcast to establish a $10 per month program for lower income families as a condition of approving their acquisition of Universal, that Comcast would still make money on internet even at $10. This program will be almost a ten dollar subsidy for a family to access broadband, which in plain English means of course that the internet provider will be charging more, and potentially way more, for the service while the $9.25 knocks a bit off the bill. In the run-up to the FCC’s action some argued that average basic internet bills were running $30 to $40 per month. Knock a ten-spot off of that bill, and we’re still talking about families pushed up against the wall having to come up with another twenty or thirty bucks. And, I’m not even talking about the cost of installation or whether or not the family has a computer. This is just not going to happen.

And, will this be “high-speed” just like those 95 percenters have who are making $150,000? I doubt it. In Canada for several years after we got Rogers to agree to a $10 per month plan in public housing in Toronto, we were constantly arguing with them about issues of speed. One or two megabytes per second is not enough to stream or download or do most web-based homework. The FCC action was silent on this issue.

One-hand clapping might say this is better than nothing. Maybe. But, the fact that internet providers are not complaining should be a clue, friends and neighbors. They are glad to get their hands on some of the billions that had been solely subsidizing phone service for some lower income families. The Comcasts don’t sell phones and phone service, so this is all good news for them.

For lower income families this new program will mainly be another myth where they are playing Tantalus and trying to reach the grapes, always out of reach.

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