The Cost of Poverty, Literally

Here’s a sobering piece in the Atlantic on how much money poor Americans lose just by trying to manage their finances. A not-so-fun fact:

Approximately 70 million Americans don’t have a bank account or access to traditional financial services. That’s more people than live in California, New York, and Maryland combined. It’s more than the number who voted for Barack Obama (or Mitt Romney) in the 2012 election.

The writer calls for “financial education” and says “it’s also an opportunity for technology,” suggesting that

mobile apps can begin to replace the infrastructure of banks, allowing us to send money to friends, family, and businesses, and manage the sum that’s left over.

And the conclusion:

Ultimately, the solution to this problem will require the financial tech community to adopt a familiar economic philosophy. Poverty is painful, and it’s the responsibility of a fair society to make it feel easier.

Sure, mobile apps might help to manage limited funds, but this really wins the aim-low prize of the day. Technology can help make poverty “feel easier”? Simply by circumventing the check-cashing places and payday lenders who gouge the poor?

Here’s a better idea: Go directly to the problem and eradicate poverty. Insist on mandated living wages in all states. Make housing affordable for all. Provide childcare and healthcare.

American culture loves to view technology as a panacea. The writer of this article doesn’t necessarily do that, but he contributes to the problem by privileging technical solutions that address the symptoms, rather than humanitarian solutions for the real problem. Technology can help to solve these problems, but it can’t fix them. Only we can.

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