Listen: Using tech to fight poverty
Elisabeth Mason, founding director of the Stanford Poverty & Technology Lab, talks to the FT's Hannah Kuchler about solving problems such as education inequality and job retraining the Silicon Valley way.
Hosted by Hannah Kuchler and produced by Aimee Keane
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Hello, and welcome back to Tectonic, a podcast that looks at the way technology is changing our lives. I'm John Thornhill, innovation editor at the Financial Times in London. Last week, we talked to Martha Lane Fox about her work trying to ensure that the internet lives up to its early ideals as a democratising force. This week, we hear from a lawyer who is using data and technology to fight poverty in the US.
I think that 99% of the market is going to, how can we Yelp a better burrito for you tonight, Hannah? Right? How can I find you a great hairdresser?
Versus, how can I match you with the right job training programme? How can I find great childcare for you? Or how can I make sure your child is actually learning the way your child naturally learns so that he or she can accelerate in his studies and actually fill those knowledge jobs that are out there but are not being filled by Americans because we're not training them for them?
That's the voice of Elizabeth Mason, the founding director of the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab in Palo Alto. She spoke to the FT's Hannah Kuchler earlier this year.
So you have this background in fighting poverty, and you've turned up here in Silicon Valley. Why have you come here?
I came To Silicon Valley because I believe that we're at a critical turning point actually in human history. I think that we are at a moment of tremendous opportunity but also very great risk. And I think that the reality is that much of that risk as well as that opportunity hinges on the issues of poverty and inequality and whether or not we can leverage the tools that we now have in our arsenal, which are really actually relatively new if you look back through history, to address issues of income inequality, of economic mobility, of access to education, versus exacerbate them.
And I think the big question right now, not just for Silicon Valley but actually across the globe, is are we deploying our tools for good or for ill? And I think the reality is tools are tools. So the question is, what do we do with the knowledge that we have at our fingertips?
And so in your work before you joined the Stanford lab, what did you see in people's lives that showed the impact of the tech revolution far from here where we are in Silicon Valley.
I think there are two ways of looking at this, again. On the one hand, I think that you see increasingly-- and this is not just technology, but I think technology has a huge piece to play in this. I think you see low wage jobs becoming less and less attractive.
The reality is that unskilled labour is becoming cheaper. There's lots of pressure and there are not the sort of social guarantees that used to exist on unskilled labour. And a lot of that is, frankly, because it is easier to replace that unskilled labour with programmes. And so it becomes a real issue of competitiveness.
Now, at the same time, while I think there's these pressures on wages-- and I don't think, by the way they, only have to do with technology. I think it is a combination of the evolution that we have in technology with a policy framework that shifted dramatically since the 1960s. So I think it's the combination that has--
Do you think that tech gets too much blame?
I think the tech gets, in many circles, all of the blame when in reality it's a combination of the pressure on unskilled labour with the lack of investment in skilling up the labour force and, quite frankly, a real shift in distributive policies. Let's just take take in the US but it really an all post-industrial nations since the 1960s. The US is obviously more dramatic than Europe.
But in the US, we're looking at a change, for example, in the marginal tax rate at 90%, pre-Reagan to 40%. So you're looking at a big, big shift. And I think it's that combination that happens to come at a very difficult time that probably has led to a lot of the populism that you see in the rise across post-industrial countries.
And so much of this change you talk has taken place already. But we're sitting here watching a lot more changes down the line. I mean, artificial intelligence is the buzzword over the last couple of years in Silicon Valley. And there's a lot of concern there that that have an even greater impact on income inequality. Is that part of the reason why you came here now to try and talk about these issues?
Yeah. I think that we have a huge opportunity to not only stop the tide but actually reverse it. So we have tools that are in our arsenal now, whether it's differentiated education for the whole of human history and, frankly, since the 19th century when we've had universal education in many countries. Education's one size fits all. And we're not doing a particularly fabulous job at it. It's a relatively expensive thing as well.
There are ways to rapidly increase the ROI on our education dollar and the impact on students' and families' lives by figuring out how to tailor the educational message or how to retrain people for folks that need a different approach. And instead of shoving all students into the classroom at the same time, we could be delivering individualised programmes for every student in the nation. That's actually not a pipe dream. That's actually extremely available to us. But we're not doing it.
And so I actually think that we're facing a future where we could see largely the end of poverty and the ability to really include or at least give the opportunity for most people to be included in a very vibrant economy. But we would have to use many of the things that we're learning now in AI and big data and apply them to the social sector. And the reason I moved to Silicon Valley is that I don't see that application happening fast or furious enough.
I think that 99% percent of the market is going to, how can we Yelp a better burrito for you tonight, Hannah? Right? How can I find you a great hairdresser?
Versus how can I match you with the right job training programme? How can I find great childcare for you? Or how can I make sure your child is actually learning the way your child naturally learns so that he or she can accelerate in his studies and actually fill those knowledge jobs that are out there but are not being filled by Americans because we're not training them for them?
And why do you think that is? Do you think that's just capitalism and the profits are in delivering me a burrito wherever I am? Or is it something about the culture of Silicon Valley where a lot of people do criticise it for being young men catering for young men's needs?
That's a great question. I think it's a combination. I think clearly, the immediate rewards in terms of financial rewards are obviously seen in catering to the middle and upper middle classes. Easier to make a buck.
On the other hand, from the government perspective or certainly from the national perspective, when you think about how much money we're throwing into social services. I mean, the safety net alone is a trillion dollars plus a year. That's a lot of money
Frankly, a lot of companies can make a lot of money by simplifying it and getting better outcomes. The government certainly could save a lot of money. So I do think there's actually a capitalist's, quote unquote, "incentive" that's there. But the money is not as easy to get at as Yelping your burrito.
I also think, obviously-- and this has been talked about by many people in the sector, but Silicon Valley clearly has a diversity issue. I think it's one that it's at least starting to try to take seriously, probably only in the last year or so. And there's a lot of work to be done. And so obviously, when you have creators who are creating things, they're creating things for themselves, largely. And there is not a lot of representation yet.
That's interesting. So I wrote a piece earlier this year on personalised education, which I think is what you're talking about when you say differentiated using technology platforms to better understand people's learning styles, needs, purpose, let them at their own pace. And one of the things was interesting for me is that while it did perhaps, as you say, help people who had a less of a educational achievement background, a lot of the reason why I felt people were interested was they'd been bored at school. They'd been the cleverest in the class, and they hadn't got help. And so in a way, that actually seemed the incentive for Silicon Valley to get involved in this.
I think that's true. There are obviously these quirky things that happen. And God bless the brilliant engineer who didn't fit into fourth grade and therefore needs to figure out how to help all those other kids who don't fit in to fourth grade.
The reality is that we also have a lot of children with tremendous talent in this country and frankly all across the world who don't even have access to fourth grade or certainly in this country don't have access to a decent fourth grade education. So I don't care what the pathway is. And I do think you're right that in many cases, there are engineers who-- they had ADHD, or they had other problems, and they thought, wow, I could solve this, and God bless them. That's awesome. But the scope of the problem is actually way beyond what those engineers possibly experienced. And we need to get everybody involved as fast as possible.
And so on the education front, as I said, there were several projects up and running with Silicon Valley interest in them. Do you think that to be more widely adopted, do they need government backing?
Any programme that seeks to really scale ultimately has got to either get government backing or adaptation at some point. Any educational system penetration is going to have to happen with partnership through government. But I do think that it is possible to pilot interesting programmes without the government involved.
The reality is the government is involved in every aspect of our daily life. And quite frankly, I personally would be concerned, especially with AI, if the government weren't involved in some of these things. I think there are real concerns about privacy and people's information.
I think that there are plenty of misuse cases for data gathering, especially when you look at low income folks. I think they're the most vulnerable-- and children. And so I think that in order to scale educational programmes, you're going to need the government. But I for one say, let the best of the private sector partner with the best of the public sector. And let's find the right balance for the future of our communities.
So education is obviously incredibly key. And I know it's very early days for the Lab. But what other big problems are you trying to find technological solutions for?
There are a lot of opportunities in using big data to figure out what's working and what's not in the social sector. So if you look a little bit at what the Ryan and Murray, the Ryan-Murray Commission, which is the only bipartisan game in town right now in Washington, there's real interest across both sides of the aisle in this country, at a time when there's not interest across the aisle in almost anything, to figure out how to invest in programmes that work. And how do we use data to evaluate those programmes quickly and to try to retrofit the right programmes to the right people? How do we actually more effectively use the dollars that we have to make sure that they're moving people up and out of poverty versus just maintaining them there?
And I think big data, both in evaluation as well as predictive applications, can be extremely helpful to some of the federal as well as state anti-poverty efforts. I think there's a lot of room for innovation there. I think there's a lot of room for very basic innovation on social service delivery.
It's crazy that you can Yelp your burrito and you can get 50 options and they can all be scored and you can crowdsource information to get better and better information over time. But god forbid you need to find a job training programme or you need to find a good childcare option for your child or you're a woman experiencing domestic violence. You have nowhere to go. You don't know where to go. There may be opportunities out there that you don't even know about because you can't do a quick Google search.
Why can't we search quickly for programmes that can make a difference in our lives? That seems to me like a very obvious opportunity and one that, frankly, hasn't been parsed in any way. And imagine if low income people could actually not only search for opportunities but rate them.
Yeah. And you'd think that that would really help with accessibility, because sometimes it almost seems as if these things are deliberately hidden, and they're hard work to get that.
I think it would help with accessibility. And I also think knowledge, as well as voice, is power. And so one of the most interesting parts, obviously, of the tech revolution that I think you can look at in the Arab Spring-- there are plenty of opportunities around the world. And it can go frankly for ill as well as for good, as you know-- is how do we actually give voice? What if folks could rate the quality of the government services they got? There might be a real shift in quality all of a sudden.
And I suppose there's also probably opportunities for greater participation and contribution. We talk about crowdsourcing and all these kind of ideas in tech and people can, at least have their opinions heard a little bit more.
I think one of the things that's so amazing when you look at low income communities across the country is that they're really the best at knowing what the solutions are. And when you look at the history of poverty in America or frankly, around the world, people don't tend to rise out of poverty because of government programmes. That structure has to be there to help them.
But there's a lot of ingenuity that goes on. So why not figure out how to amplify that ingenuity through letting people, for example, share their experiences, what works for them, what's a good strategy, being able to search for opportunities. I think that there's so much that goes on in low income communities that's actually not quantified or written down or accessible to others. And even sharing knowledge across those communities could be very, very empowering.
That's interesting. Back on what you said about big data and trying to assess the success of various government programmes. What kind of extra inputs would be valuable that we could get now that we couldn't get before?
I think that's a great question. A very very good friend of mine, Mauricio Lim Miller, who won the MacArthur, a few years ago just came out with his book. And he founded something called the Family Independence Initiative, which is a genius idea. And really, Mauricio came from a history of doing social service programmes in California. And his family had been through them when he was a youth growing up.
And he said, these aren't working. I'm going to get all these programmes out of the way of families. And all I'm going to do is use data and technology to document what families are doing for themselves and to allow them to communicate with each other, look at the data, see what's working, and help each other.
So the whole idea is literally put families out on their own but give them the supports through data to be able to track what's happening in their lives, to track what's happening in the lives of their community, and share what works so that that one in 100 that figures out how to buy a house or get their kid into a great programme becomes not an outlier but the standard.
And actually, he's had tremendous impact. There've been huge gains in household income in his programme. Homeownership has gone up by-- I think it's about 20%. And students are doing better in school.
Well, guess what? No government programme at all. Now, I happen to think that obviously it's a combination of the right supports with government with the right information from families shared to other families. But that type of sharing that can be turbocharged through social media or other forms of data collection and technology, I think, can really change the game in low income communities across the United States.
That's really interesting. That's like a much more productive fashion of the Quantified Self movement, much better than tracking your calories and your steps.
Absolutely. And actually, one of the things that's interesting is-- it hasn't really been applied yet. But exactly-- thinking about the Jawbone or the Fitbit and those types of things, we do know what types of basic moves really help low income families. So for example, reading to your child every day-- huge difference in the number of vocabulary words the children have going into school. And if they have those vocabulary words, how well they perform in school. Making sure you do your regular medical checkups. Making sure that you have all your vaccines done.
There are some very, very basic steps that actually can give huge boosts to childhood outcomes. And yet we don't actually have a way of tracking those. And so you could imagine a way-- maybe not wearing on your wrist.
But you could imagine an app or a tracker that would help families, guide families through those types of things and say, look, have you done this? Have you done that? This leads to boosts of 20% in child learning. Maybe you should try this. And then follows up with incentives to do that.
Yeah, yeah, well, that makes sense. A lot of people, even with better resources, are a little bit lost when they come home from the hospital with the baby.
Exactly. And actually, the Bezos Family Foundation, which is not Jeff Bezos's directly. It's his parents' and his siblings'. They have actually done some really, really interesting work around how to build apps that can help tell families what sort of activities should they doing with their children, even from birth.
So what should you do when you're diapering your child? What are good songs to sing? How do you help increase their vocabulary? All those sorts of things. And I think you're right. Even high income families don't necessarily know what to do.
So that brings me onto, who are you working with? You seem to be very keen on this partnership model. Who around here is actually really interested in what you're doing?
Well, we're just getting going, so I don't want to announce things ahead of the time. But certainly, we had some great support in our first convening, which we did with the Obama White House. And the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has really been at the forefront of a lot of the work, as well as Google and others.
So I do think there's a lot of interest in pursuing this. Google happens to be doing some very, very interesting work now around the future of work and actually how to move folks long into the workforce more successfully. And we are working a little bit with them. We've been talking a lot the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative about possibilities. So I do think there are a lot of openings.
I think the issue for me-- and this is just more of a personal opinion on this-- is I wanted to start this lab, one because I wanted to go after some of the lowest hanging fruit. And I see tonnes of possibilities. I mean, I sit at home at night and think about the 10 things I could do tomorrow that I think could have a big impact. And I do think those are out there, and those are the programmes I'm pursuing right now.
But I think that we really need a movement, not just in the Valley but across the country, of how do we leverage this tech revolution for change. And what I was interested in doing in the lab was not only coming up with some case uses that I thought were very compelling and important but in building a field around, how do we take the best technology and adapt it to our biggest problems?
The Lab can do some interesting projects. And maybe some of them will be real game changers. But nothing changes the world from one spot. Real shift is going to happen when we see people across the country sharing best practises, when we see companies across the country, not just in Silicon Valley, figuring out how to apply these technologies, when we see investors flocking to do this, when we see government figuring out how to use technology and big data to be more efficient and effective. And part of what we want to do is encourage-- way beyond the ivy walls of Stanford-- is encourage the country to take up this charge seriously.
And what about long-term? For example, Silicon Valley recently has seemed to be a lot more interested than usual, since the election in the US, in the rest of America. We've had Zuckerberg go out on his tour across America. But he's not the only one.
There's been plenty of other people who have either gone on visits or met 150 Trump supporters or-- there's been a lot of, oh my gosh, we were in a bubble. Let's reach out and understand the rest of America better. Do you think that's going to last?
I do. I think it's going to last because it has to. I think that we are in a real turning point in the US.
My colleague Raj Chetty who's at Stanford and absolute genius has shown how the American dream, how American mobility has dropped by 50% in the last 50 years. In the 1950s, 90% percent of children earned more than their parents. And now it's dropped to a lower than 50%. There is a real erosion in that mobility in the US and frankly in Europe.
People were thrilled that Le Pen didn't win the vote and were saying, oh, thank god she only won 30% of the vote or whatever it was, a third. I remember a decade before when her father won 10% of the vote in France in the presidential election and France was panicked. So there's been a real shift in the politics. And we can say it's about racism and technology frankly with these little bubbles, we're actually getting into these loops where people are reinforcing their own messages. And I think that's not helped. The reality is all those things play a huge part. But the other part is that opportunity's is really being shut off for a large swaths of the population. And therefore, that bubble has to burst, because societies for long periods of time don't remain stable if you don't figure out how to readjust.
Yes, and one of the favoured ideas in Silicon Valley at the moment for dealing with the problems of stability and the problems of potential job losses to AI is universal basic income. What do you think of that?
I think that some of the universal basic income conversations are really critical to have. I don't know if you know this famous Niels Bohr quote, which is, "Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future." Well, part of the universal basic income obviously comes into, what do you think the future is going to be?
And there really is a debate right now as to whether or not we're looking at a future in which large swaths of the population are going to be unemployable or whether we're really just have to figure out how to adjust our education and training and job matching and all those things to make sure that our populations are employed in the jobs that-- in good jobs but the jobs that actually have skills for. And I think nobody knows the answer.
There is a chance, however-- and I think there are quite a few voices that think that because of the nature of AI, that it may very well replace some jobs for humans in a way that other industrial revolutions have not in the past. And in that context, how we distribute income or what the future of work or even societal contribution looks like is an important one. Do you have to think about going back to the WPA and the FDR era? We came out of the Great Depression because we gave work, effectively, to millions of people who then worked on public works.
And we're still benefiting from many of those public works now.
We are still benefiting from many of those public works now. And maybe what you want to do is pay artists to do beautiful murals and redo our national parks. And our roads look like crap, so it would be nice to actually make sure we redo our roads. There are plenty of things you could imagine making valuable. I don't think we know yet.
But I think the debate about universal basic income is an important debate because it underpins is, what are our values as a society. If we are in a future in which a large percentage of the population can't work, do we believe that people should have access to be able to survive. Do we believe that people should have enough income, in whatever way, to be able to put food on the table and pay the rent? And so whether or not it ends up being that universal basic income is necessary or whether or not it means that we have to make other very smart investments in job training and job placement and education-- whatever it is, I think that conversation around ethics becomes critical when we're facing this type of societal change.
And this is a global conversation. I know that you are focusing on the US at the moment. But is anyone else doing this kind of work looking at poverty and technology around the world?
Yeah, I actually think that some of the more interesting efforts actually are going on around the world. It's one of these ironies in that, unfortunately, the poorer you are and perhaps the more a lack of infrastructure you have, the easier it is to leapfrog. So think about financial services in Kenya. 90% of Kenyans were not banked 20 years ago.
In the US the majority of people are banked. There are certainly millions who are. Not but the majority of people are.
So all of a sudden can you put banking on cell phones, and it goes viral very, very quickly, because there was no system that it was replacing, whereas all the efforts to get the unbanked banked in the US are much more complex because you're coming up against a much more complex regulatory system and everything else. Similarly, if you think about Southeast Asia or southern Africa and access to education, you have tens of millions of young children who don't go to school at all. So all of a sudden giving a laptop per child or doing even just distance radio education but using technology to give some basic education leads to huge gains.
I think that some of the most interesting efforts actually-- and the ones that are going to scale the fastest around poverty and technology-- are really happening abroad. But I think that the impact and the possibilities for the US are as great and that they're as important, because if we don't figure out how to stabilise our post-industrial economies, the world is so interlinked.
It's not as if we're going to be able to make incredible gains in Africa, and if the US political system starts falling apart it's not going to affect African economies. So I think that we need to look at that impact across the board, but I think some of the things-- using satellite imagery, for example, in Africa and across the globe to predict where we have to put investments for poverty-- some of the work going on abroad is some of the most interesting to me.
Well, I'm really interested and excited to hear about what you guys end up doing. Thank you so much for taking the time to come in and talk to us.
Thank you very much.
We'll be back next week with another episode of Tectonic. In the meantime, if you'd like to comment on today's show or suggest any topics you'd like us to cover in future episodes, then please email us at Tectonic@FT.com. don't forget to subscribe to our show on your favourite podcast app. And if you write a review, that will help other people find us, too. Thanks for listening. This episode of Tectonic was produced by Aimee Keane.