We must use innovation to ramp up our social safety net
One Degree’s Rey Faustino: The tech world shows us it’s possible to dream big and innovate. It’s past time that we use these tools to imagine a safety net for the future.
Imagine the store of the future. You walk into an immaculate, brightly lit room stocked from floor to ceiling with the freshest food on glossy shelves. Instead of the typical store cashier checking out your kale chips and kombucha, the store is dotted with technology to track you.
Weight sensors are in the shelves to track products, cameras eye your every movement, and each item you pick up and put into your bag or backpack is automatically scanned. And then you walk out and instantaneously get billed for the exact items you selected.
This may sound like a distant future, but this is happening now. Automation is here. And it is inevitably going to create significant job displacement — a 2017 report from McKinsey Global Institute warned automation could eliminate 73 million jobs in the United States by 2030.
Last month, I visited one of the two Amazon Go mini-marts in San Francisco. The 800-square-foot stores are the internet giant’s new foray into the brick-and-mortar convenience-store space. It was missing something pretty glaring: cashiers.
Cashierless technology is already spreading. When I shop at my local Safeway grocery store, I usually use the self-checkout line. But while people are talking about how automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning have begun to threaten the jobs and livelihoods of low-skill workers, there aren’t many discussions about how this will affect our social safety net.
Frankly, our safety net is not ready for this deluge of worker displacement. At One Degree, the nonprofit organization I founded seven years ago, we’re leveraging technology to make accessing social services easier. This is imperative because we need infrastructure that meets the size of the problem. The benefits and services that compose the social safety net are scattered among thousands of governmental (food assistance, welfare, health care) and nonprofit programs (homeless shelters, child care, legal services). Navigating these disparate services can be grueling.
When the safety net was introduced in the 1930s, it was innovative social insurance that we know now as Social Security. As a society, we have since created more safety net innovations, such as food stamps and unemployment benefits, to prevent individuals from falling into poverty.
But the safety net has become cumbersome and confusing to navigate. In the Bay Area, 62 percent of people who are hungry, or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, do not qualify for food stamps. They’re stitching together services to feed their families. A One Degree member uses Women, Infants, and Children food service (known as WIC), a food pantry, and a free meals program at a local community center to feed her family of four. Low-income families routinely use a dozen services to make ends meet. Doing so takes hours of time to navigate.
There is hope, though, as innovations in corners of the safety net are popping up. For example, Social Interest Solutions, a national nonprofit organization in Oakland, rolled out One-e-App in 2009, one of the first electronic applications for government benefits, such as Medicaid. Now One-e-App is used as the online application of record for government benefits in Arizona and other states.
At One Degree, we developed mobile applications to make it easier for vulnerable communities to access the social safety net in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County. In the past, people spent hours using paper binders to find resources. Now they’re able to find services right in the palm of their hands. For instance, another One Degree member, a single mother of two in Oakland, would have used a full day traveling across Alameda County to find help with her job search. Using the One Degree mobile app, she was was able to locate and apply to an employment agency immediately.
We need commensurate innovation in the safety net to help people bounce back from job displacement. Contrary to the general stereotypes, roughly 7 in 10 low-income adults own a smartphone with internet access. At One Degree, where over half the people we serve have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness, we saw a 100 percent increase in mobile smartphone usage over the past four years. Clearly more and more people from vulnerable communities are accessing the internet and expecting the same kinds of innovations in other parts of their lives.
Automation. Artificial intelligence. Big data. These aren’t just buzzwords in the tech world. Imagine using real-time social service data to route people to the right services at the right time before they fall into poverty. Or using AI to automatically qualify people into preventive health care when they apply for food assistance.
The tech world shows us it’s possible to dream big and innovate. It’s past time that we use these tools to imagine a safety net for the future.
Rey Faustino is the founder of One Degree, a tech platform for social services and benefits . He was nominated in 2015 as a Chronicle visionary of the year. To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters