Combating Poverty in the Age of the Internet

According to data collecting by the World Bank, it has been estimated that 10% of the world’s population lives on less than $1.90 USD a day as of 2015. These numbers are down significantly from those in previous years (36% in 1990). However, general poverty, food insecurity, and housing and job instability are still a large issue for many people around the world. Just under half of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa lives under the poverty line and wages are slow to rise for those living in low income communities globally. The World Bank has made it its mission to bring the number of those living with extreme poverty down to 3% by 2030. And government
entities, businesses and non-profits around the world are working hard to combat economic inequality through innovation and technology.

Mending the Digital Divide

The Internet has become essential for addressing our everyday needs. From finding a job to ordering groceries, we use the internet for everything, making life harder to operate when one does not have access to it. Most smartphones are programmed to connect to the Internet automatically, but personal WIFI networks can cost individuals hundreds of dollars a month, making them hard to access for those living paycheck to paycheck. For impoverished communities, access to an affordable internet connection can mean the difference between life and death. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy, one of the worst storms to occur in American history, devastated the East Coast of the United States causing billions of dollars of damage. However, for residents of the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, NY, their open WIFI network potentially saved them from total disaster. The Red Hook WIFI is a mesh network that allows all residents of the public housing community to access the Internet for free. Thanks to this network, residents were able to connect to each other as well as with volunteers and first responders when the storm took out the neighborhood’s power. With access to the web they were able to get updates on safety routes and places where they could obtain emergency supplies and first aid. The Red Hook WIFI is one of many public mesh WIFI networks being set up by volunteer groups around the country in order to give the country’s low-income residents access to an affordable, reliable Internet connection. Organizations such as the Open Technology Institute have created programs that give teens in low-income areas access to tech-training and educational programs, giving them the knowledge and the skills to build these mesh WIFI networks in their neighborhoods and endowing them with invaluable experiences that they can utilize in the jobs market and in school.

Jobs That Work for Everyone

It is a common belief that many low-skill jobs will disappear in the near future because automation will make these jobs obsolete. To some extent this is true. Many factories are opting for robotic labor over human workers, leaving many communities with very little work available if they do not have a certain skill set. But machines can’t do everything. The jobs market is still reliant on human labor, and some non-profits have jumped into action to provide work opportunities for low-income communities with few technical skills in the digital economy. Lailah Janah, a tech entrepreneur, founded Samasource, a non-profit connecting impoverished communities to work in the digital sector. According to Janah, tasks such as image tagging, and data entry are two of many that exist in the digital sector that do not require individuals to have technical skills. These are jobs that can easily be filled by people anywhere in the world without much need for training, and the money the individuals make can be used to supplement their income and provide them with employment. For communities in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia who rely on agriculture as their main source of income, the money can be used to reinvest into their farms and allow them to grow their businesses.

This work is also accessible for those where travel and mobility may be an issue, such as for communities who do not have access to affordable transportation or those with physical disabilities. Samasource has also designed an educational program to accompany their jobs program to help those in the program to learn how to find work using the Internet in order to maintain a steady income. As a result, program participants saw their yearly incomes quadruple on average and they were able to redistribute the extra income into other areas of their lives such as in their education, their family, or in their businesses. Even as the number of individuals in extreme poverty declines, there are still billions of people around the world living in situations that are economically unstable. As we become an increasingly digital society, it is important to think about the ways in which we can use new technology in order to combat these issues. Many visionaries are creating long-term solutions that take into account the very unique circumstances that individuals around them find themselves in and building from there. Building stable economies starts with providing communities with steady, sustainable work, and as our economy evolves, this requires us to think of solutions that are outside of the box.

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