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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