In today’s lopsided economy, nearly 15% of American households struggle with providing food for their families, and the number of working households receiving food stamps alone has more than tripled over the last decade. But for the people whose paychecks don’t add up enough to feed the kids, or for those struggling to find work, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) application process itself–often a long and inscrutable document–can sometimes make seeking aid difficult, too.
Slogging through bureaucratic paperwork doesn’t seem like a task for a smartphone at first. But when Jimmy Chen walks me through Easy Food Stamps, his mobile website that functions something like a TurboTax for SNAP applications, using a smartphone middleman to translate terms like “deemor expenses” into plain English begins to make a lot more sense. Chen, a fellow at social impact incubator Significance Labs, developed the tool with three other Significance team members for New York City SNAP applicants. It goes live today.
There’s actually quite a bit of evidence supporting the idea that such a tool should go on smartphones. Gone are the days when earliest-adopted computer phones functioned as flashy status symbols for the tech elite. Now, they’re everywhere. According to a Pew Research Center survey published last fall, more than two thirds of cell-phone owners use their devices to go online. More than a third of those do it with their phones more often than they do with computers. Of that group, low-income Americans make up one of the biggest phone-first demographics.
“After talking to low-income folks in New York City communities, one of the things I realized is that navigating bureaucracies is different for [them],” Chen says. “It’s a problem everyone has, regardless of income level, but we think it’s a problem that’s magnified for low income folks. [They’re] the ones who can least afford the hassle of navigating a complex bureaucracy.”
Young people in particular, Chen adds, would likely benefit from something like Easy Food Stamps. (After all, think about all the un- or underpaid interns of the world.) “It’s best-suited for people typing in their information on their phone,” Chen adds.
That said, using the mobile space for good does have some baggage attached to it. If Chen and his colleagues, who collectively call themselves Propel, want to make money from the app (which spits out a completed form at the end for Propel to mail), they could reach out to non-profits and see if those groups might pay for institutional use of the software. Or, like Facebook and lots of other mobile platforms, they could sell ads.
Ads aimed at the less affluent make an appealing and specific demographic for marketers, but it’s unclear how that kind of targeting might come back to haunt users. Earlier this year, a Senate report found that data brokers crawling apps and web traffic for demographic identities sometimes lump people into categories like “ethnic second-city struggler” or “fragile families.” It’s not difficult to see how that kind of label could be abused or be used to discriminate or manipulate behavior.
Chen says that monetization still remains a far-off concept. But he does agree that mobile technology tends to favor the needs of the relatively comfortable rather than the underserved. That’s much of the reason why Chen left a two-year stint at Facebook to come work at Significance earlier this year.
“A lot of the social good created by technology is unevenly spread throughout the world. A lot of technology is built to scratch our own itches,” Chen says. “Low-income Americans don’t have nearly as much technology aimed to help their challenges than I might.”
To check out Easy Food Stamps’ Kickstarter campaign to fund the next steps of the project, click here.