Measuring the Cost of the Digital Divide for Lower Income Families

Little Rock   We continue to struggle with cable companies promising to offer affordable digital access to lower income families.  Comcast, Cox, Time-Warner, and others promise, while failing to deliver in any meaningful way.  The FCC claims to be engaged in the fight with us, but lumbers along ineffectively.  Ironically, when the recent FCC chairman stepped down, the reports focused on his advocacy of increased access, while not making much of his ineffectiveness; as head of the Federal Communications Commission, most of us would think he was in a position where he could stand and deliver and not simply speak from a bully pulpit.  The new nominee is a former trade association lobbyist and Obama fundraiser, but hope and hard work spring eternal.

            Eduardo Porter in the New York Times may have stumbled onto part of our problem in fighting the persistence of the digital divide by pointing out the inability of standard gross national product measurements to calculate the real value of improved technology and information access for workers and consumers.  To the degree they can’t measure it, too often business and government don’t think it really counts.  Sure if technology allows business to cut cost – and workers – then it’s swell, but that doesn’t say that everyone should have access to information technology since the measurements for how it increases value are vague.  For example I have often argued that business shouldn’t complain about the public school system in New Orleans, because their lack of support created exactly the school system they wanted to bind workers to low paying jobs in the hospitality industry making beds and washing dishes.  Without understanding why people with more access to information make better workers, consumers, and citizens, business and government continue not to be willing to step up and put real money down.

            Porter marshals some numbers that help give a clearer picture to the out of pocket cost to workers of not having equal access to information.  One economist he cites argues that information access increases annual income by 2%.  Porter’s own figures calculate an average worker’s wage and argue each worker loses $500 a year without information access.    The impact on consumers is even greater.  Consumer surplus from on-line information seems to be growing at $34 billion per year.  Interestingly television still delivers a consumer surplus 5 times higher than that from free information!

            We should be able to value access to information as an intrinsic good, contributing to more informed citizens in the overall electorate as well.  Although on second thought, reading some of the positions being argued in Washington, maybe that’s actually part of the problem.  Too many of those yahoos probably don’t want a better informed and educated citizenry.  Nonetheless, 2% here,$500 dollars there, and soon we’re talking about real money and citizen wealth, making it all still worth the fight.

Digital Divide Audio Blog

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Union Conundrum: Short Term Needs versus Long Term Success

The St. Louis CIO's campaign for unemployment benefits in the 1940s

New Orleans  Eduardo Porter’s “Economic Scene” column in the New York Times is fast becoming a favorite read for me.  He actually seems to care about people, including working and low income people.  Probably not long for this world at the paper, but worth showing some love.

In today’s column he looked at the deterioration of labor unions and strained mightily to find some optimism in the fact that unions have been in the doldrums before (about a 100 years ago) and managed to comeback by reinventing themselves to match the changes in corporate and industrial organization so that they could grow and set labor standards.  Astutely he recognizes that the change in corporate organization today with informalization, subcontracting, globalization, and service sector domination could force unions to “give up organizing work site by work site.”  That’s probably not true.  Some unions will always and only stick to such a model, just as some unions never changed (and in some cases died) because of their failure to adapt seventy years ago.  It is true though, as I have frequently argued in the case of Walmart and so many of the major nonunion employers of tens of thousands of workers that have arisen in the last thirty years, that one has to organize company-wide because site-by-site work will never catch up to the size of the enterprise.

Porter cites the alliance between organized labor and a workers’ association that produced legislative breakthroughs for domestic workers in New York State  as a potential new model.  He could have said the same thing about our accomplishments in winning living wage measures and protections for home care and childcare workers.  The domestic workers accomplishment is huge, but it is not a solution for unions because the membership and growth has not yet followed the political achievement in the way that home care and childcare membership added more than a half-million members to organized unions.

Whatever organizing model, unions are still first and foremost membership organizations, so any new strategy that allows growth and success has to increase membership and the dues have to be adequate to sustain the organization and allow it to grow.  So far this has been the conundrum for moving more aggressively to a new “majority unionism” model.  These are long term, patient investment strategies, and unions as membership organizations are political as well as economic institutions and short term success is still more valued even though the very survival of unions is now at risk and the resources necessary for a turnaround are diminishing.

On the pilot we are now putting together in Toronto and that many are experimenting with in other settings in the United States, there can only be success if there is direct membership recruitment and dues payment to support the workers’ associations that will lead a new workers’ movement.  The existing institutional union structure increasingly seems so stuck in the cage of its history and current practice that it may not be able to change.  If that is proven to be the case as seems more and more likely, Porter is right in general though perhaps not in specific, and though he does not say this, I will, it points to the fact that it may be new organizations that have to lead the revival and restructuring of the existing labor movement again, just as it was the CIO and the new unions of the UAW and others that broke the patterns last time.

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