Living Economics

Time Rich or Time Poor?
Proliferation of e-government services may exacerbate the digital divide between technology haves and have-nots.

E-government promises to move a lot of citizen-government transactions online. When it is fully functional, citizens no longer have to show up in person waiting in long time to get or submit forms, apply for benefits or permits, or make payments when the government offices open from 9 to 5. Instead, all these time-wasting steps can be handled over the Internet 24 hour a day and 7 days a week.

Already, some of these functions are already available over the Internet. But like other technology, the Internet's blessings are not evenly spread among income classes. Those without easy access to the Internet at work or at home simply cannot benefit from this timesaving technology. Not surprisingly, these are the poor with low-wage jobs.

There is a certain irony in this uneven impact. Those with low-wage jobs who are least able to take time off from their 9 to 5 work end up being forced into getting their in-person services that are available only from 9 to 5. Seemingly adding insult to injury, these cash poor people are called time rich. On the other hand, those with high-pay jobs (the cash-rich) who could afford to find timesaving substitute services are called time poor.

But services that are cash cheap is usually time expensive. Public transportation is cheaper but takes longer. Charitable hospitals and clinics are cheaper but have longer waiting lines. So these time expensive services mainly cater to people who cannot easily convert their time into cash for time cheap services. If the opportunity cost of the cash-poor's time is low, they must by definition have relatively more time than cash. It thus makes sense for them to substitute their relatively more abundant time for cash. Hence, the label of being time rich.

On the other hand, the cash rich can afford to substitute cash for time by using cash expensive but time cheap services to equalize the productivity of their work and non-work time (see the Harried Leisure Class - ../../default.asp/scholarly_papers/leisure.html). Because the cash rich have relatively more cash than time, they are labeled as time poor.

  • Kaufman, J. "Can Technology Find Time for the Poor?" WSJ, 8/16/01.
  • Borrus, A. "Click Here to Pay Your Parking Ticket." Business Week, 01/17/00.
  • The Economist. "Haves and have-nots," 6/24/01.
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