Where we are born too often defines our opportunities in life. Consider the advantages and disadvantages faced by the average child born in Sweden vs. the Central African Republic or even the South Bronx vs. Upper West Side of Manhattan. Place—separate from but also working in concert with other drivers of poverty and inequity, such as racial discrimination, inadequate social services, and poor quality jobs—greatly influences socioeconomic opportunity.
“Could virtual education and remote or online work reduce the influence that physical place has on socioeconomic opportunity?”
Our recent study of approaches that aim to address this problem interestingly pointed not only to strategies for helping to spur more ‘places of opportunity’ or connecting more people to existing such places, but also to developments that might simply make place less important. Specifically, might virtual education and remote or online work reduce the influence that physical place has on socioeconomic opportunity in the future? These innovations certainly aren’t guaranteed to reduce poverty and inequity, but at the very least they may change the way that both play out and, in turn, could be addressed. Virtual education is on the rise, both as a complement to traditional, place-based education and as the basis for entirely new forms of education, such as massive, open online courses (MOOCs) or tuition-free, degree-granting online universities. Remote work is also growing, increasingly complementing place-based work and spurring new forms of work, such as virtual micro-work where a project is broken into small tasks and farmed out to online workers.
Early stories are compelling.
Three years ago in Kathmandu, Rashmi’s father died. He had been the sole earner for the family, and soon her mother had to sell her jewelry to manage daily expenses. Rashmi heard about an opportunity to work virtually with CloudFactory, a company that the Foundation has invested in and offers a virtual assembly line to connect workers with tasks like transcription and data entry from global corporations. Rashmi excelled at the work, eventually being promoted to a full-time data expert. Her earnings have helped her family to become financially stable again.
Rashmi’s story is inspiring, but critics might point out that many virtual work platforms—unlike CloudFactory, which has a both a financial and social bottom line—don’t offer clear ladders for worker advancement. Another concern is that most platforms don’t provide benefits like sick leave or healthcare.
Considering both the potential and the challenges associated with online work and education, they’re still likely to continue their rapid growth. Imagining five, ten, or even 25 years into the future, how might these innovations change the role of place in poverty and inequity? What if they’re so widespread that people have access to thousands more channels for education and work, regardless of where they were born? Would this disrupt the role that place plays in influencing opportunity? (Thanks, American Geographical Society, for giving us space to explore these questions at the 2015 Conference!)
We identified three positive, possible future scenarios to spur new thinking:
- More Equitable Participation for Single Parent Households? Single parent households experience higher rates of poverty than multi-parent households since there are usually fewer income earners and people to share in home care duties. They also constitute significant proportions of the population, from 75 percent of households in Haiti to 35 percent in the U.S. If single parents could widely access work virtually and set their own schedules, might this significantly increase their incomes while still enabling them to meet care responsibilities?
- Transportation Affordability and Access No Longer Defines Opportunities? Today, where one can walk to, drive to, or reach on mass transit tends to define the scope of available schools, training, and jobs. Furthermore, as a result of rapid urbanization and non-inclusive planning in many cities, many people who are in or near poverty live in the least accessible parts of cities. Commute times are increasing, and routes themselves can even be unsafe. What if commuting was no longer necessary due to remote work, reducing this inequitable transportation burden?
- Less Exclusion based on Gender? In many countries, women and other gender minorities might be kept out of many occupations that are considered “for men only.” Girls are also more likely to be pulled out to support their families at a young age. Globally, there are four million less girls in primary school than boys. Might remote education and work reduce this gendered manifestation of inequity?
One common theme among these positive future scenarios is that all imagine exclusion dynamics not traveling forward into a more virtual world. For example, they imagine remote education and work making what you know more important than who you know by providing transparent entry points to work that rely on data rather than recommendations, intuition, or biases. This includes the 30-minute online tests that many virtual data workers are already being asked to complete.
But what if exclusion and inequity are carried forward from our current physical reality into our future virtual world? There are some early signals that, on ride-sharing platforms, drivers who are people of color or women may receive lower rankings or even less ride requests compared to white or male drivers. One could also imagine remote work not unlocking new opportunities for women and other gender minorities but rather further keeping them out of the public sphere.
Access to the internet and computers is another key issue in the highly competitive world of virtual work. Today, the digital divide is pronounced: only 13 percent of households in Pakistan have broadband at home, while 70 percent of US households do but not equitably—the rate is 53 percent for Hispanic households and 64 percent for Black households. While broadband will likely be more widely accessible in several years, what new types of digital divides might emerge? Are those of us working to help address poverty, discrimination, and inequity preparing for its digital forms, which may be more pervasive in the future?
The growth in online work and education are just two of the many drivers of change in how place affects poverty and inequity.
*Rashmi is a pseudonym. Special thanks to the CloudFactory team for generously sharing their personal stories and to Director of Operations Robina Maharjan for facilitating.