Can kids code their way out of poverty?
Before I attempt to answer the question Can kids code their way out of poverty? I acknowledge the fact that “coding” and “poverty” can mean a lot of things. Defining them goes beyond the scope of this blog post, but rest assured that regardless of what those two terms mean for you, the message I am conveying will not be affected by your definitions.
Let’s start with why coding has the potential to improve a child’s life in terms of job prospects and self-fulfillment:
1 Coding to escape poverty is not a cul-de-sac
When you're signing up for software engineering, you're signing up for lifelong learning. Of course, this means that for kids to become lifelong learners, they should be taught how to think computationally, rather than just being asked to memorise the programming syntax. Bear in mind a whole essay could be written about this, but assuming coding is taught in the right way, then their career will never be over, as long as they are able to keep learning.
2 Coding is not just a way to escape, it can be a way to stay
Stay? To do what? Shouldn’t they escape the community that is probably not going to offer them job opportunities once they have learnt coding? True. But coding could be a way to solve the problems they want to escape in the first place.
Coding might not solve the problems of poor communities directly, but it can be used to devise the tools and solutions that will enable to solve them. There's an endless list of digital solutions that are used to tackle some very important issues relating to poverty, but I'll write it some other time.
The point is, coding is not necessarily an escape. It can also be a skill to be used to solve challenges where the kids already are.
So what’s the catch?
Teaching poor kids to code will just feed cheap labour to tech giants. Why?
If coding becomes the new literacy ..
If coding shifts from a highly sought skill to the same as being able to read and write, then why should software developers receive a high salary?
Literacy rates in Western European countries during the Middle Ages were below twenty percent of the population. For most countries, literacy rates did not experience significant increases until the Enlightenment and industrialization (1).
Fast forward to 2022, literacy rates are significantly higher worldwide. Yes, there is still a huge gap to be filled between the rich and the poor, but they are nevertheless higher. In the Middle Ages, you could end up covering an important role at an institution partly BECAUSE you were literate. In 2022, people covering important roles in our society are literate (though that could be debatable but we'll leave it for another day 🤣) but they're not there BECAUSE they are literate.
Let's say coding becomes the new literacy, how can relatively high salaries be justified? Or maybe the tech labour market will take the form of “it depends”? After all, the salary of a literate person is affected by many different factors that go way beyond literacy.
Nevertheless, should kids who learnt to code become part of a cheap workforce, rest assured tech giants will be the first ones to benefit from it. Ben Tarnoff warns us in his article, explaining that teaching EVERYONE how to code will proletarianize the profession by flooding the market and forcing wages down (2).
Regardless of the outcomes, tech giants are encouraging kids to learn coding and that’s a fact. Just look at the list of companies and individuals who donated to code.org (3).
Outsourcing is a business practice of hiring a different company to provide goods and services that could be provided internally. In common usage, outsourcing often (but not always) implies sourcing from a different country, especially when a company from a richer country is working with a company with lower costs (4).
Though it’s still going to feed cheap labour to tech giants, outsourcing would mainly affect kids in developing countries if they want to become developers when they grow up.
You might ask yourself, what’s the big deal? A big company outsourcing would enable these kids to get a job. True. But the question is whether through that job they will just pay their rent or they will contribute to the technological development of their own country. If they are working on someone else’s solution, how can they develop one of their own?
I don’t generally write to provide answers. I don’t have them. I write to ask questions to make you think and that in turn will result in more questions you might start asking yourself, though it seems in this article I have shifted towards a solution that suggests kids combine the development of coding skills with entrepreneurship. But will that really set them free? Or are poor kids learning how to code destined to become tech proletarians? If yes, is there something wrong with that?