Using apps to improve the lives of low-income Americans

Mobile apps have taken off in the past decade and one company is focused on using apps to improving American lives. Reporter Andrea Vasquez talks to Jimmy Chen via Google Hangout, to find out how his team at Propel is designing software for the 45 million Americans who benefit from food stamps.


Mobile apps have taken off in the past decade, and one company is focused on using apps to improve American lives.

Jimmy Chen and his team at Propel are designing software for the 45 million Americans who benefit from food stamps.

Jimmy Chen, thanks for joining us.

Nice to be here.

A lot of start-ups and things within the tech world are created by and often for people with at least comfortable incomes.

You're kind of taking a new approach looking at an audience, a low-income audience.

So why did you go that direction and what challenges is that bringing?

Yeah, we think it's a little bit of an unconscious bias that exists in the tech community.

People tend to build technology that solves their own problems.

It's the natural way to go.

But we think in 2016, the users of technology are really diverse, especially smartphone technologies being used at basically every end of the income spectrum, and so this is a case where people have smartphones and what they need is the software to kind of address the day-to-day challenges that they face.

So, at Propel, what we really aim to do is to bring the best-in-class in software development to a user base that's not primarily served by Silicon Valley.

You're doing that with food stamps.

How did you choose to go that route and what does that kind of look like in the app form?

So, in the summer of 2014, my team and I did a lot of research into how low-income Americans use technology and the different challenges they faced, and one of the issues that sprang up time and again was how folks navigated government programs.

We realized as a team that we didn't know much about programs like the Food Stamp Program, and so we applied for food stamps ourselves every day for a couple of weeks to learn more about what it was like to apply for food stamps, and from that kind of sprang the opportunity that we turned into our company.

What did you learn from that process?

We learned a couple things.

The first is that, you know, in talking to the people that are applying for food stamps, these are incredibly brave and resilient folks.

We noticed that the Food Stamp Office is full of folks who actually are sitting there kind of waiting to be seen by a human social worker, and they pass the time the same way that I do when I am waiting in line somewhere, which is I pull out my phone.

So you've got lines of hundreds of people waiting in line to fill out a paper form and see a human social worker when they actually have the tool to kind of address that in their own pockets.

In the past, it was a little hard getting the accessibility, overcoming the hurdle of certain families not having computers or Internet access at home.

Are smartphones kind of bridging that gap or is there still an accessibility gap there?


Smartphones are really changing the game here, and it's happening really quickly and faster than most people imagined.

Our latest data shows that around 70% of people on food stamps have access to a smartphone that has a data plan.

So smartphones are not only, you know, a popular way to reach this demographic, they're increasingly the best way.

Are there many other start-ups and apps and other things in the works for this population?


We think there's a large and growing set of companies that are focused on helping low-income Americans become more financially healthy and more physically healthy and to become more connected to the resources that they need.

It all springs from people who notice that there's a really large opportunity to serve tens of millions of Americans through software.

Do you have to approach the back-end process any differently or the financing in order to keep it best tailored for low-income Americans?

Well, you know, we actually built our company a lot like a traditional Silicon Valley-style start-up, and we do that very intentionally.

The space that we work in of helping low-income Americans navigate their benefits is not a new one, it's just one that's traditionally worked on by nonprofits and governments.

We think that by applying kind of the Silicon Valley-style start-up methodology to this particular problem, there's actually a lot to be gained, and so by that, I mean, you know, we want to accept venture capital money.

We want a business and a product and a user base that's scaled at the volume of Silicon Valley.

That's really what we're focused on.

Do you see other gaps in the tech economy and the tech world of needs that are not being addressed?


We think that low-income Americans have access to smartphones at a large and growing rate, and that provides an unprecedented opportunity to bring products and services to them at scale.

You know, there are not a lot of Silicon Valley-style companies trying to address the challenges of low-income Americans, and that's because it's hard to empathize with someone else's lived experience, and so if I was to give any advice to aspiring founders and entrepreneurs, I would say, if you can walk in the shoes of low-income Americans, you'll identify some of the challenges that they face.

We did this by applying for food stamps ourselves and spending time at the Food Stamp Office, but there are a number of other ways you can try to empathize with the experience of somebody who's not the same as you.

So, are there other future plans for expanding Propel's services?

Propel's really focused on making our current product, Fresh EBT, the best it can be to serve the 45 million Americans on food stamps.

Our future vision really involves turning Fresh EBT into an antipoverty platform.

We think that helping low-income Americans connect to the government services they need is really critical, and that's kind of the first thing that we're focused on, but in the future, we also want to connect low-income Americans to the public-sector/ private-sector nonprofit services that allow them to become more financially healthy.

Jimmy Chen, thanks for joining us.

Thank you very much for having me.