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Why technology alone can't lift people out of poverty

Just a few years ago, life was dramatically different for 38-year-old Washington, D.C., resident Behrooz Bakhtiary. Bakhtiary was a single father working odd jobs as a security guard, a club bouncer and a hotel concierge to pay child support when his 5-year-old daughter, Therela, was diagnosed with leukemia.

“You get tired of just being tired. Tired of living with people on their couch, renting rooms, tired of knowing it’s never gonna change and all on top of the fact that you have to be able to provide to your child,” Bakhtiary said. “Lives are not built on hopes and dreams. You gotta have money.”

Bakhtiary knew he needed a better job and he was certainly smart enough to get one — before dropping out of college in the early 2000s after his daughter was born, he’d majored in English — but it wasn't easy.

“You have to have the internet to find a job, it’s the key,” Bakhtiary said. “You won’t find a job without it, or you’d have to be very lucky.”

Looking for a job online meant time spent walking to a public library to get access to a computer and the internet to search for jobs — time that was hard to come by while already working full-time and trying to raise a 5-year-old.

For millions of Americans, this Catch-22 is known as the digital divide — a term that once applied to people without internet access but now refers to a spectrum of people whose lives are impacted by the limitations of internet access.

Pew Research Center researcher John Horrigan said most Americans have internet access today, but the number of people with high-speed internet at home has plateaued at about 67 percent of homes, and about 13 percent of Americans — many of them poor minorities — rely solely on their smartphones for internet access. In other words, the people who arguably need the internet the most to apply for better jobs and government assistance have the most impractical tools to do so.

“If they’re relying on a phone for (job-related) research, they’re more likely to struggle uploading documents and searching because often job ads and sites aren’t optimized for the small screen,” Horrigan said. “They may also have to curtail their activity to avoid extra charges and data caps, so a smartphone is useful for closing the digital divide on one hand, but it has its limits.”

Some might argue that even with limited access, the digital divide is exacerbated because there are few high-paying technology jobs for Americans without college degrees. But they’d be wrong.

A 2013 study from the Brookings Institute found that while 20 percent of all U.S. jobs demanded STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and math), half of them didn’t require a college degree and they pay 10 percent more than non-STEM jobs with similar educational requirements.

At a time when wealth inequality (especially along racial lines) is a big concern for the U.S. economy, it seems like jobs in technology should be helping low-income and less-educated Americans out of poverty.

So why isn’t it?

Despite recent efforts to shore up the divide with iPads in struggling school districts or computer donations for the technology-poor Third World, limited access to technology is only one part of the digital divide’s root causes.

D.C.-based nonprofit Byte Back executive director Elizabeth Lindsey said America needs more of what she calls the third leg of the digital divide’s “three-legged stool”: internet access, technology access and training.

Behrooz Bakhtiary inspires his fellow Byte Back graduates as the student speaker at the graduation ceremony in 2015. | Byte Back

“Everybody loves to talk about getting cool devices or access to Wi-Fi to solve the digital divide, and access is important,” Lindsey said. “But without the skills to utilize that technology, we aren’t helping people utilize all that technology offers.”

A changing economy

Ironically, many experts argue that those trapped in the digital divide struggle to get out because of technology’s impact on the job market.

“There are fewer and fewer jobs where you don’t have to interact with any type of technology,” Brookings Institute senior fellow Martha Ross said.

In another time, someone like Bakhtiary could have had a good-paying job in the labor market or manufacturing sector with no college education. But Ross says many of those jobs now require some technological know-how or formal training that used to occur on the job.

“As technology has become more integral to more jobs, its power to substitute for labor has increased,” Ross said. “So even in a manufacturing job, a strong back isn’t enough anymore.”

The difference is more obvious in some occupations like manufacturing, where automation has taken over many jobs like assembly-line work, but it’s easy to overlook how instrumental technology has become even for jobs that don’t require a degree, like low-level office work.

“Because we’re so reliant on technology, there are more barriers to people being able to move into jobs that are accessible to them,” Lindsey said. “The opportunities to get a good job out of high school have shrunk over the past 40 years.”

Such jobs used to be called “middle-skill opportunities,” defined as work that required little or no college education. For years, middle-skill jobs were highly important because many middle-class families relied on them for household income, according to job market analyst firm Burning Glass Technologies.

But now, almost 8 in 10 middle-skill jobs demand digital skills, such as proficiency in word processing, spreadsheets or presentation software.

Those may seem like simple skills to develop with a little persistence, but Lindsey says it’s hard for many in the digital divide to attain those skills without help. She says there are few cost-effective ways to learn basic computer skills, especially for older people.

“We have whole communities (in D.C.) of people who don’t have regular access to technology,” Lindsey said. “The people who don’t have it are being left behind.”

An educational divide

Educational opportunities around technology are important because as the number of jobs that don’t require much formal education has ebbed, education has struggled to give students the skills they need to keep up with the pace of technology changes.

While public schools and colleges argue over how soon some technology skills, such as coding, should be implemented into curriculum (some say children should start before they enter school), people who are not digital natives need stop-gap education in the meantime.

This is a novel problem for U.S. schools, which in the past have been ahead of the curve with how technology changed the economy, as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz write in their 2008 book, “The Race between Technology and Education.” They argue that one of the reasons America prospered in the early 20th century was because the number of educated Americans met the rising demand for skilled work post-Industrial Revolution.

As economic think tank The Hamilton Project found in a 2015 study, education rates among Americans rose dramatically in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1875, Americans had less than eight years of school by age 30, but that number climbed at a rate of about one year per decade so that by 1930, just 55 years later, the average American had 11 years of school.

That changed around 1950, when the amount of education the average American receives before age 30 plateaued at around 14 years. While that's a lot of education compared to some parts of the world, The Hamilton Project said keeping it up is important given how quickly technology changes the economy and what's expected of its workforce.

“What the future will mean for shared prosperity will likely rest on the choices Americans make about how to educate our population,” the study reads. “More education — or more of certain types of education — is necessary for someone to capture high wages in the age of advanced computing, networking and big data.”

Lindsey said that’s why Byte Back is committed to a rare commodity today: Computer education and literacy for free at every level, from learning how to turn a computer on to certification courses necessary for a career in IT.

“If we want to close the digital divide, we have to meet people where they are,” Lindsey said. “We need to do a better job letting people know there are opportunities in technology fields that don’t require a master’s in computer science.”

Lindsey says many of Byte Back’s students are in their 50s and 60s, which Ross says is important, as many get stuck in the digital divide because they were in school decades before home computers and internet access changed everything. For those people, catching up may mean getting a new job or simply holding onto the one they have.

“For them, a program like Byte Back is filling a huge gap that’s not as big among younger folks,” Ross said.

Despite changing job opportunities for less-educated Americans, Lindsey says there's hope for such people if they get the proper certification.

“It is challenging to find a living-wage career that doesn’t require a college degree,” Lindsey said. “But jobs in administrative assisting or IT are one of the few where this is still the case. They’re the last bastions of hope.”

Hope is one thing Bakhtiary no longer has in short supply. He graduated from Byte Back in November 2015 with his IT certification, and he's now an IT specialist with Phoenix International, an underwater robotics company, where he makes more than $50,000 a year. It’s money he uses to spend quality time with Therela, who is now 8 years old and in full remission, every single weekend.

“It’s a mechanism that works together,” Bakhtiary said. “You need the internet, but the career training is like a cherry on top of the whipped cream on the sundae.”


Twitter: ChandraMJohnson