Why Marc Andreessen Knows Nothing About Low-Income America and Neither Do You
This blog post is written by Significance Labs fellow Ciara Byrne, and originally appeared in Forbes here.
Not too long ago tech celebrity and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen made some tone-deaf comments on Twitter about how “tech innovation disproportionately helps the poor”. The truth is that the tech business has long ignored people on low incomes. Most software developers (not to mention venture capitalists), who tend to be very well-paid, simply know nothing about them.
A few weeks ago I was among their number. That’s when I started work at Significance Labs, a new not-for-profit in Brooklyn, New York, whose mission is to build tech products which create a little extra breathing space for the 25 million American families who live on less than $25,000 a year.
That’s not a lot of money in a city like New York where 37% of residents experienced severe material deprivation in the last year…, going short of food or medical care or having to sleep in a shelter or on a friend’s sofa because they couldn’t pay the rent. Nearly one in four New Yorkers relies on food stamps. Yet America’s software industry, including Andreessen himself, continues to dedicate its efforts to taking better selfies or getting groceries delivered in under an hour.
Angel cradles his adorable, two-month-old daughter Maya. The 21-year-old delivered Maya himself when the ambulance didn’t arrive in time. “I’m on 911. They constantly asking me for information. “Sir, is the patient in pain now? On a scale of 1 to 10 how bad do you think it is?’ I was like “You’re not serious right now.’” By the time the paramedics arrived, Maya was already lying quietly in his mother’s arms. For this, among other reasons, my colleagues at Significance Labs refer to Angel as “Angel the Superhero”.
Angel was placed in foster care before he was a year old. He got into trouble when he was in high school “I had a bad past. I got locked up” but turned his life around after he was sent to the school upstate where he met his girlfriend. He made us laugh with his account of how he wooed his girlfriend and later measured her finger for an engagement ring while she slept. Angel is clearly a doting Dad although, as he says, “I didn’t plan to be married at 21.”
“I tried to find a job but then I don’t have no-one to watch her (Maya),” he says. “She’s a good girl though. I could leave her with someone but I don’t know. I don’t want to leave her with anyone. I just want to stay with her.” Angel would like to join the army and go immediately on active duty overseas so that his family (he also has a two year old son) would get benefits. His girlfriend is less keen.
We met many superheroes in our first few weeks of bouncing around some of NYC’s poorest neighbourhoods talking to students and school aides, cleaners and nannies, system D entrepreneurs and undocumented immigrants. You have to be resilient and resourceful in order to survive on a low income in New York. Some of the people we interviewed didn’t have a job. Most had several, often on top of school and family responsibilities. When you make the minimum wage, side hustles are often essential.
People on low incomes have a lot of drama in their lives. When you don’t make much money, you have less slack. There’s a lower margin for error in any decision you make. An unexpected shock like a health problem or a sudden expense can seriously derail you. Angel dropped out of school when his son was born. He missed the last two week’s of his six-month Green City Force program when his son had a seizure and ended up in intensive care. “I brought in like this much doctor’s notes to them but they wasn’t able to give me none of the services.” When you don’t have health insurance, getting sick can mean a trip to the emergency room and a $2000 bill.
Low income-Americans are more vulnerable to scams, exploitation and racism. “My boss sometimes called me like I was a servant, yelling at me from the other room,” said Margarita, who has a green card and a Bachelor’s degree. “In Ecuador I have my own office, my assistant. When I came here and I was a secretary they were asking me to clean also, to vacuum the floor. It was not my position. They did not hire me to clean up. But I was doing it anyway. I didn’t want to lose my job.”
A lack of physical security was another common problem. The formidable Ms. Flowers talked to us at a school in Brownsville, Brooklyn where, as a school aide, she has kept generations of students in line. “I treat these kids like they are my kids”, she said, which for Ms. Flowers means imposing strict discipline. I asked if she had kids of her own. “I have 6 kids,’ she said, “I had 6 kids. One of my kids got killed in 1997.”
Ms. Flowers’s daughter Tasha was shot in a random attack right outside her house. One of her sons was also hit but survived. “That was a freak of nature,” she says. “Not God’s nature but human nature” Brownsville still has a higher murder rate than all of Manhattan. Ms Flowers has lived there for 32 years. “The only bad thing that happened to me over here is my daughter getting killed,” she said.
Although we heard terrible stories like this one, our interviews were full of lighter moments too. A cleaner described the smell of a freshly cleaned house and how much satisfaction she gets from the fact that “I’m making people happy.” An undocumented daycare worker told us about her interest in computer programming. Monica waxed lyrical about her favorite artists Van Gogh and Miro. Sandra shared her dream of traveling to France or Italy. Margarita does not regret moving to New York in spite of the difficulties she has faced here. “I am not the same person that I was before,” she said. “This experience is beautiful.”
Every person we met had their own complicated, personal story to tell, but a few common themes emerged. Surviving on a low income translates into other types of scarcity – of information, of respect, of opportunity, of time with friends and family, of health problems or missing health insurance, of security, of “slack” and even of sleep. Some of these shortages technology may be able to address, others not, but most of our interviewees had a smartphone and at least intermittent internet access. People on low incomes can least afford bad design. It’s our job to ensure that they don’t have to.
“Wherever you go, you should have a focus, ” Angel told me. “What are you doing right there? Stay focused.” At Significance labs, each of us has only three months to build a tech product for low-income Americans. We plan to stay focused.