WASHINGTON — Smartphones and mobile apps can help end poverty, but only if traditional social programs carefully integrate technology into safety net services, according to technology experts.
The problem, it seems, is that existing social programs, designed to aid the poor and disadvantaged, have not kept pace with the warp speed of the digital revolution. And many Americans are suffering because they are not up to date in making digital connections with social services that can help them, scholars and experts said Wednesday at an American Enterprise Institute event.
According to the United States Census Bureau, 43.1 million people were living in poverty in 2015.
Andrew Stettner, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said private-sector smartphone apps let people know what government benefits they are eligible for. But the same apps cannot process applications for the benefits, which is the purview of government.
“Imagine if you could go to Amazon, find out what you want, but you couldn’t actually buy it,” Stettner said by way of example. The crucial thing, he said “is to go farther in sharing data.”
Getting good data to make informed policy decisions is another major problem in the approach to poverty, especially homelessness, AEI fellow Kevin Corinth said.
Corinth recommended giving smartphones to the homeless to help them track their data.
There’s not a lot of good data on homeless people, he said – what services they use, where they sleep, and what happens when they finally leave the streets.
Interviews by social workers of people at shelters help a little, but it’s not enough, Corinth said.
“We can’t track people while they are at their most vulnerable, while they are sleeping on the streets,” he said. “We can’t track people after they are in housing and gotten to use the services.”
Getting those kinds of details would help researchers analyze previously unavailable data in an effort to create more effective policies for homeless people, he said.
Although Corinth acknowledged some might think his proposal to give smart phones to homeless people is “a crazy idea,” he said many folks on the streets already have mobile devices. He’s convinced homeless individuals would submit their data if given proper incentives. How about a free mobile plan in exchange for helpful data?
Derek Khanna, a fellow at R Street Institute, a free market think tank, said the so-called gig economy could help get many Americans off of unemployment benefits, or public assistance. The gig-economy is what apps like Uber, Lyft, and Postmates have created, a service industry where companies hire independent contractors. There’s no set working schedule.
“The underlying assumption of unemployment insurance and welfare is that they’re aren’t jobs,” Khanna said.
However, with companies such as Lyft, Uber, Postmates, and other similar service companies, Khanna said there will always be some job available.
“If they don’t make enough money to get by (in the gig economy), that is when the safety net should kick in,” Khanna said.
Such assumptions may be premature, Stettner said. Because many platforms and companies in the gig economy are fairly new, he said, ‘it is very early to think about what the gig economy can do for welfare programs.”