Author Finds Technology a Tool Not a Solution in Bridging Divide

By Leah Josephson

People often describe the “digital divide” in terms of high-income individuals’ having access to cutting-edge technology that helps them thrive socially and economically, while low-income individuals are left out. The divide is often cited as a significant source of economic inequality.

At a recent event at Busboys and Poets, Dr. Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, critiqued this diagnosis as overly simplistic. The event was co-sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Teaching for Change, and DC Jobs with Justice.

Eubanks worked with a group of low-income women who are members of the YWCA community in Troy, NY, and asked the women what they needed. The main problem was not the digital divide. Instead, “more buses, less racism, and fairer employment” were the most popular calls for help.

Eubanks expected these women to have few technological skills. Instead, she found two-thirds of them already working in high-tech jobs, such as data entry or network administration. However, these jobs were low-paying, had few benefits, and were unstable. Technology was ubiquitous in their lives, but they could not use it to improve those lives.

Eubanks realized that simply providing technology and training is not enough to improve women’s lives. Rather, projects need to be designed to account for deeply ingrained racial and gender oppression.

Eubanks, informed by the belief that those closest to problems can best find solutions, worked closely with the women to identify their needs. They created a community technology lab for the YWCA, staffed and sustained by residents, as well as what Eubanks called an “Angie’s List for social services providers,” where the women could provide feedback on their experiences at local assistance agencies.

Even so, access to tech tools was not a high priority for the women. They were more concerned with the basic structural and cultural challenges that affected them on a daily basis—a lack of reliable transportation and workplace flexibility, coupled with racist attitudes.

Eubanks emphasized that technology in itself cannot cure these problems, but it can play a positive role. “We all have a stake in the creation of a more just information age,” she said.

Eubanks noted the creation of new, high-end jobs in technological development—touted by politicians including President Obama as the solution to our country’s economic woes—requires the support of more service industry positions in food service, hospitality, and retail. These lower-income jobs must be fair, provide benefits, and allow for work-life balance to meet the needs of workers.

IWPR has identified other basic benefits that can drastically improve the quality of workers’ lives in the shorter term. For women and their families, guaranteed paid maternity leave (the U.S. is one of only five countries worldwide that doesn’t require employers to provide it) and paid sick days could improve health, well-being, and economic stability.

Pay equity is another problem Eubanks identified. The women would often accept minimal compensation for high-tech jobs, hoping to gain the skills necessary for a higher-paid position. In a society where open discussion of salary is often taboo, these women had little opportunity to identify and express grievances, and only rarely advanced in the workplace.

“Technology is not a destination, it’s another site for struggle,” said Eubanks. In making technological advancements we should consider the quality of life of the workers who perform and enable it. Technology can contribute to a more just society, as long as the privileged consciously use it as a tool to support social justice, and not a ready-made engine of social progress.

Leah Josephson is the Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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Young Women Need Paid Sick Days (Too)

by Claudia Williams

While some workers lacking paid sick leave can take time off without losing pay, many lose pay when they are out sick and cannot afford to take a single day off. This is particularly the case for young women. At an early stage in their careers, many younger women workers are living day to day and others juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet.  With limited wealth and savings, a large debt from college or even a steady income, younger women often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when illness strikes. Younger women are often not in a position to take lower pay when sick, especially when medical expenses are involved.

While part-time and low-income workers’ concerns are widely discussed, the needs of younger workers are almost unheard of, as it is usually assumed that their health status—without the burdens of chronic health conditions and age—is excellent, and that they don’t yet have care giving responsibilities.

Data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), however, shows that young workers need paid sick days just like everyone else. In fact, of those private sector workers that reported having fair or poor health, 30 percent were 35 years or younger and a larger portion were young women (18 percent compared to 12 percent for young men). The same data show that a majority of young workers lack paid sick days; only 37 percent have paid sick days, compared to 58 percent of all workers.

Across the board, younger workers have limited access to paid sick days, no matter what they do for living, what their schedule looks like, or the size of the business they work for. For instance, whether young workers are employed in high-end jobs like legal occupations or in lower paying occupations like  health support, data from the NHIS show that only one out of five workers with paid sick days in those occupations are  between 18 and 35 years old.

For younger workers concentrated in traditionally low-income occupations or small businesses, the picture is even grimmer. Along with part-timers, these workers are most often afflicted, and women are overrepresented in this type of work arrangement. The outlook is especially challenging for young women with care giving responsibilities on top of lower earnings: paid sick days are even more essential for them to to stay afloat. For single mothers, usually with limited resources and often living in poverty, having paid sick days can make a big difference when medical problems arise.

Paid sick days are essential to all workers, but even more so to those with limited resources, including younger workers who are more vulnerable and have fewer resources than many of their older counterparts.

Claudia Williams is a Research Analyst with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

New Cop on the Beat: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

It has been a year since the passage of the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights, also known as the Credit Card Act. Along with Wall Street reform and the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, it just might now be easier to avoid financial traps.

By Robert Drago

I’ll admit it: I know more about the ingredients in the food I eat than the fine print governing my credit card. I sincerely doubt that I am alone, and most of the time, this is not a problem. Until financial disaster struck the United States in 2007, I shared with many Americans a presumption that the system is fair and reasonable, and that I did not need to read the fine print.  But it seems that things were getting out of hand.  I’m happy to say that help is on the way.

Prior to passage of the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, lenders were increasingly using mountains of fine print to increase charges to credit card holders and other borrowers. If you went over your credit card limit, the bank could simply pay the amount, charge you special fees for having gone over, raise the interest rate on your existing balances, and downgrade your credit score.

Debit cards once seemed like a solution to these problems, since you can only spend what is in a bank account. But in fact banks often allowed cardholders to run overdrafts and then charged extra  fees. Even such apparently transparent words as “fixed rate” or “prime rate” did not necessarily have their common sense definitions, because they could be redefined in any way the bank or mortgage lender pleased – in the fine print.

Lower down the economic ladder, things were often not fair or reasonable. Twenty-nine percent of Americans do not even have a credit card. Some of those individuals are financially solvent, but many are not (not that all credit cardholders are either) and, surprisingly, they have lots of credit options.

Targeting Low-Income Groups Subprime and Subpar Mortgages

Check out a payday lending site, and you will discover how to sign over your car for cash, obtain a debit card that provides cash advances (huh?), get a check cashed the same day, get a payday loan or, if that’s not enough, get an installment loan. If these all sound like such bad ideas, since the consumer ends up paying steep fees and high interest rates, that no one would use them, think again: millions of Americans are living hand-to-mouth and are relying on these services and often going deeper and deeper into debt as a result.

And sometimes unscrupulous marketers target unsuspecting people for higher interest loans when they could have qualified for lower cost loans.  Studies show that in 2006, 61% of subprime home loans went to people who could have qualified for loans with better terms.  Women and people of color had more subprime mortgages at all income levels than white men.

A Better Ally for Consumers

As we go forward from this financial crisis, we need to know what we are and will be paying in interest and fees for any type of loan. And that is where the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) comes in. Under the leadership of Elizabeth Warren, Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard University who long advocated for its creation, CFPB is gearing up for full-scale operations in July of this year. The new CFPB will emphasize the value of transparency, of letting the sun shine in, and this will help all of us.

Financial reform is not about making lenders pay for past misdeeds and shenanigans, although some of that perhaps should occur. It is instead the promise of the public knowing what they are getting into when they sign up for a credit card, take out a mortgage, or get one of those debit cards with cash advances.  Individuals and families will have a far better idea of whether they should or should not take on such debt. Those who should not be taking on debt will be more likely to avoid it, and those who should will be more likely to be able to do so with a clear understanding of the costs. Our economy will not recover until consumers feel secure, until they feel like the rules of the financial game are clear and not subject to change without notice. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau holds the promise of helping to do just that.

The CFPB is one important piece of the puzzle involved in rebuilding our economy, and an extremely important one for women, who have often been a disproportionate share of the victims of poor practices in the industry and of outright scams.

Robert Drago is the Director of Research with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.