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Can the Online Crowd Reduce Poverty?

Ilana Novick

Silicon Valley, better known for big innovation, and big houses, is also falling prey to equally enormous economic inequality. There's been a 20% rise in homelessness in the last two years, and while jobs for the tech-savvy are growing faster than they have in a decade, so is food stamp usage. About 11% of the area's population falls below the federal poverty line

The tech boom brings many transient workers to towns like San Jose, California, and now some of the same tech whizzes who benefited from said boom will have the chance to help Silicon Valley's less fortunate, in the form of Benevolent, a crowdfunding site started by Megan Kashner, a veteran social worker from Chicago. calls Benevolent "Kiva for Silicon Valley's working poor," though it might be closer to Kickstarter. It works like this: Participants who need a one-time purchase to continue making money, like new equipment or a new uniform, can post their request and a profile with their story on Benevolent, applying for the donation through a local non-profit. The average campaign raises $470. 

It's not a lot, and certainly not a replacement for government anti-poverty programs, but Kashner emphasizes that the site should fund purchases not already covered by government assistance programs. She also emphasizes that Benevolent's small donations are not "the singular thing that moves a family from poverty to sustainability," but instead that they eliminate small but critical stumbling blocks. 

Benevolent sends the donations to the non-profit to insure that the money ends up in the right hands. Unlike Kiva, the money is a grant rather than a microloan; the recipients are not expected to pay it back. 

Kashner herself received a $200,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight foundation to expand Benevolent to San Jose, with hopes for further expansion. 

The effectiveness of a crowdfunding model that is better known for funding creative projects than it is for fighting poverty remains to be seen. I'm inclined to be dissappointed that government programs don't already cover the kinds of goods or services requested by Benevolent users, and to wonder why government support isn't being directed toward programs like this.

On the other hand, the two do not have to be mutually exclusive, and perhaps this is a simple opportunity for Silicon Valley residents to give back to their communities, and to acknowledge the working poor's contribution to making the area so successful, in a way that appeals to their tecnological savvy.