Look to the Internet to Fight Poverty

PRESIDENT-ELECT Barack Obama begins to put together his government, one
question reigns supreme. How can he possibly deal with the economic
crisis and the war in Iraq, and still have anything left over for the
social justice initiatives that are so dear to many of the Democrats
who elected him?

The challenge is tough but not impossible. In the past decade,
information technology has begun to transform anti-poverty efforts and
bring to the poverty world some of the increases in productivity that
have been common in the private sector. If Obama can expand on this,
the chances for him to make good on a broad social justice agenda will
increase in spite of the other challenges he faces.

In the past two decades, electronic database and Internet
technologies have driven down the cost of government overhead while
significantly elevating the productivity of the nation's anti-poverty
programs. Fraud has been reduced while the needs of the economically
distressed are addressed in a more timely manner. This has freed up
money for other pressing anti-poverty needs.

For example, the nation's food stamps and housing programs have been
transformed by information technology. The food stamps program adopted
the use of "smart cards" - electronic benefit transfer technology - to
streamline benefits and eliminate fraud. The Department of Housing and
Urban Development saved billions of dollars after adopting computer
matching programs to handle housing assistance cases.

America's public-assistance system has gone from being plagued by
problems to a program that has made great strides in helping the poor.
Part of the change was the result of government action in the 1990s to
shift the incentive structure of the system. But the transformation of
how welfare is administered, how cases are handled and processed, would
have been impossible without information technology. This is one area
where the investment has more than paid for itself, and, as welfare
cases increase, this would be a good place for the new Congress to

Benefit eligibility is only one area where the Internet has helped
improve anti-poverty work. It has also expanded the effectiveness of
more traditional anti-poverty efforts. For example, the Internet has
allowed the poor and their advocates to better navigate the complex
bureaucracies that are characteristic of modern welfare states. In
addition, it has helped poor children in underserved schools and poor
adults seeking jobs, financial skills, or small-business opportunities.
Through Beehive, a multi-lingual self-help portal created by One
Economy Corporation, thousands have been able to find employment tools
such as a business plan helper, and information on unemployment
benefits and financial literacy.

In the developing world, where anti-poverty programs are either
small or nonexistent, the Internet has allowed non-government
organizations to bridge the social, economic, and physical isolation of
the poor. In countries like El Salvador and India, the Internet has
helped to more effectively link farmers with markets, getting rid of
costly and sometimes corrupt middlemen. One program in India provides
Internet access to farmers via solar panels and satellites, allowing
them up-to-the-minute information about weather, soil testing, and
other factors that will increase productivity. And the Internet is
becoming a critical tool for health workers who often work in remote
areas far from doctors and specialists. Armed with PDAs, these workers
can offer better medical care than ever before.

Internet innovation has transformed business, entertainment, and
even government. In an Obama administration, it can transform
approaches to poverty at home and abroad. The government's efforts
should be focused on expanding access to Internet and other
technologies for as many Americans as possible while continuing to
develop our national broadband capacity. An expanded technological
infrastructure will help Obama make good on a broad social justice
agenda as he confronts the myriad problems he has inherited.

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