Kick Your Sidekick

The T-Mobile Sidekick is the Air Jordan’s of the digital age. Just like the Air Jordan’s were aggressively marketed to low-income minority youth in the 90’s, so too has the T-Mobile Sidekick in the 2000’s. I’ve thought this for a while, and it has bothered me quite a bit, but it all came to a head last night.

Last night I went to a birthday party a friend of mine was having for her son. I was talking to her teenage daughter who has had some troubles in school. The daughter is in a special program right now where she is only on campus two hours a week. I asked her how she was doing in English, and how she wrote her papers since the family doesn’t have a computer and she has limited access to computer labs.

To my surprise, she told me she writes her school papers on her T-Mobile Sidekick! I thought to myself “Wow, that is so uniquely American poverty.” There is no way this girl is going to learn the writing skills she will need to support herself in the future if all her papers are written with two thumbs on a 2.6 inch screen. I am still pretty shocked that she is doing this, and it makes me wonder how many other low-income youths, who seem to have more access to smartphones than computers, are doing the same.

It seems easy to blame the parents here. I’ll admit my first inclination was to be mad at my friend for buying her daughter a Sidekick instead of a computer. But even though a computer would have been a better purchase than the Sidekick (not to mention it would cost the same, or less given the contract with T-Mobile), it is understandable how low-income families get sucked into the Sidekick trap. Sidekicks are aggressively marketed to low-income, minority children in a way computers are not. For parents who can’t offer their kids a better neighborhood to live in and a better life, getting their kid a Sidekick is a luxury they can “afford” their kids.

Don’t get me wrong, the purchase of a Sidekick over a computer is an awful chose. But, the corporation that makes the Sidekick (Danger, which sold itself to Microsoft) knows darn well who they sell their products to and who is making them rich. I do a lot of work with low-income youths and I feel like every one of them has one of these stupid things.

Obviously we can’t stop corporations from marketing expensive and frivolous products to low-income minority youth. These families are in a way low hanging fruit for exploitation by the likes of Danger and Nike. What I wonder though is why there aren’t more computer manufacturers marketing to low-income families the way the Sidekick is being marketed? The cost of computers has come down so much as to be acquirable at about the same price, and Asus even makes a sub $400 dollar laptop, the Asus Eee PC.

As computer manufacturers continue to look for growth in an increasingly saturated computer market, perhaps they should look to low-income American families. By selling to low-income families they could grow their businesses and even do a little social good.

Hungry Anyone? (Maybe 29 Million of You?)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported the number of people participating in the Federal food assistance program rose about a million people from 28 million to 29 million in the latest reporting period. The report only counts people receiving food through USDA, not private food donations, so the actual incidences of food insecurity may be higher.

Given what has been going on in the macro-economy the rise in food insecurity is not surprising. The whole country is hurting right now, but those who were already hurting are now hurting even more. I’m glad congress finally passed the bailout (sorry, “rescue package”). I know it was riddled with pork, and not the kind being served by the USDA. But the bailout package was the right thing to do for the whole country. Without access to credit, businesses won’t be able to get capital needed to create jobs, and we’ll have more months like September when we lost 159,000 jobs.

Emergency Foundation

As a social service professional I tend to focus more on the provider side of services rather than on the fundraising side. But money obviously is a big part of the game. In the current economic down turn, social services are finding themselves without the funds they need to continue operations, as was noted by this article in the New York Times.

The irony of course is that in economic down turns the need for social services goes up, even though providers cut back. It seems every time we find ourselves in an economic crisis, we collectively lament that no one thought ahead and preserved money for a rainy day fund so that we would have services when people need them most.

So it got me thinking that there should be a foundation that only gives out grants in an economic crisis. An emergency fund for emergency services. This way, when vital social services find their budgets pinched, this foundation could step in and provide some monetary relief.

The foundation would fundraise like hell in good economic times and refuse to give away a dime. It would only give out grants during rough times. It’s would be kind of like a forced savings plan on the social services sector. Your thoughts?

Silicon Valley at Risk of Homelessness

It’s generally thought that spending more than half of one’s household income on housing makes a family at risk of homelessness. An article in today’s San Jose Mercury news reported that a significant number of Silicon Valley households spend more than 50% of their incomes on housing. The article writes:

When the U.S. Census Bureau released 2007 data last week for the 800 largest counties and 500 largest cities, all nine Bay Area counties were among the top 40 counties in the country with the highest share of homeowners who spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

Now, labeling middle to upper-income Silicon Valley families who spend more than 50% of their income on housing as being at risk of homelessness is largely unrealistic. It’s true these families are spending a dangerous portion of their income on mortgages. However, assuming they can sell their homes and get the equity out of their houses, they likely just end up in a smaller house or convert to being renters. I don’t point this out to be insensitive of their plight. Rather, this article exposes the worst side of an American psychology of “owning” homes at all costs, even to the point of securing unsustainable mortgages where it is the bank, and never the family, that ends up owning the house.

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley would see a disproportionate number of families spending more than 50% of their incomes on housing compared to the rest of the country. Silicon Valley home prices are incredibly high, and the culture of the Valley is so obsessed with consumerism (note, I grew up in San Jose, so this critique is coming from somewhere), that it is predictable families would lock up so much of their income on otherwise unaffordable homes.

Of course, this sets up the Valley for a big fall, one we are only seeing the early signs of. As home values continue to decline, mortgage payments will stay the same, or even adjust upward over time as many sub-prime loans do. However, the equity families will be able to extract out of their homes will fall.

This is somewhat okay in the short-run assuming the tech industry can inoculate itself from the financial crisis and that venture money keeps flowing, since as long as jobs stay stable, families can continue to make their mortgage payments. But as the declining value of Apple’s stock and a report in the New York Times on the tightening of credit available to Silicon Valley companies highlights, it appears the other shoe is about to drop in the Valley.

While this may not set the stage for a dramatic rise in Silicon Valley homelessness, declining home values, unaffordable mortgages, and a tightening of credit that threatens jobs puts the whole Valley at serious risk.