When Terrence Davenport first heard about the so-called gig economy, he was working at a free-meal program in his hometown of Dumas, Arkansas, a tiny village surrounded by cotton fields. Around 40 percent of Dumas’s roughly 5,000 residents lived in poverty. Most young people who left for college, as Davenport had done, never came back, and both the town’s population and its median salary—about $23,000 a year—were shrinking. “What did you eat today?” Davenport would ask kids he passed on the street. Often it wasn’t much, and he invited them to have a free meal. But what he really wanted to do was solve the deeper problems that made them hungry.
It was 2014, still the early days of Uber and Airbnb, and Silicon Valley was promoting the idea that its app-infused “gig economy”—which used digital technology to connect workers with projects—could solve the United States economy’s problems. “In many ways, we look at Uber as the safety net for a city,” then Uber-CEO Travis Kalanick said on a conference stage in 2016. He asked the audience to imagine that a factory had closed down. What would happen to those workers? “They can push a button and get to work.”
A San Francisco–non-profit called Samasource wanted to test the idea in Dumas. It already hired extremely poor people in East Africa and India to complete online projects for tech companies like Google. While the difference in living wages made that model impossible in the United States—the tech projects paid too little—Samasource hoped the gig economy could create similar opportunities for the unemployed here. It called the idea “Samaschool” and had chosen Dumas, along with Merced, California, to test the program; in Dumas, the local school district’s outgoing superintendent, who had sat in on Sunday-school classes taught by Davenport, had recommended him to run it.