Uber has been relatively quiet for the past few months, keeping its head down as questions over "Uber-type jobs" have risen to the level of presidential campaign stump speeches. Now, it's going back on the offensive, laying out the case for why the ride-hailing app is not just good for consumers and drivers — but also for the economy as a whole.
The argument comes from former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who 14 months ago became Uber's chief spokesman and has since transitioned into the role of a public policy strategist. The message he's trying to get across: At a time when wages have stagnated in the rest of the economy, Uber is an income boost for people whose jobs haven't been providing enough to live on.
"Most people in America say they have too little money and too little time. The two are closely connected, and they’d like more control of both," Plouffe said, at an event in D.C. attended by lobbyists, policy wonks, and tech start-ups. "Uber and platforms like it helps solve for both of these pain points. In a world where more people than ever before are struggling to balance work, family, and bills they can’t pay, ride-sharing is a way to put money back in your pocket and time back on your schedule."
In a follow-up discussion, Plouffe said he was in Washington to try to inform a debate the company has largely skipped on the national level, as politicians start to talk more about how regulatory structures might need to adapt to accommodate new forms of on-demand work and courts scrutinize Uber's independent contractor labor model. Besides putting out a study of its drivers' habits and earnings — which came under criticism for not including their costs — Uber hasn't gone into detail about its economic impact.
"I think sometimes in Washington, it goes straight to ideology, like 'is the on-demand economy good or bad,' without understanding the first flipping thing about what’s actually happening," Plouffe said. “Some of that’s on us, because we haven’t gone out there in a full-throated way and engaged in these debates. And it’s clear we need to.”
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In his speech, Plouffe revealed a few new stats. There are 1.1 million drivers currently on the platform globally. Four hundred thousand of those are in the U.S.; they earned $3.5 billion in 2015. Half of all drivers in the U.S. drive fewer than 10 hours a week — Plouffe thinks that illustrates that people are using the platform whenever they need it, almost never as a full-time job. Sixty-five percent of drivers' hours vary by more than 25 percent week to week.
"There’s a mythical person created by people in Washington," Plouffe said. "They drive for Uber, they drive for Lyft, they rent their house on Airbnb, they maybe do a little Handy or Instacart on the side. That person doesn’t exist. Most people are using one of these platforms to supplement existing income."
That argument helps Uber, because it undermines the idea that its workers should be employees rather than independent contractors — in public perception, if not in law. Lawmakers and regulators might be less likely to press Uber to offer benefits like healthcare coverage if it's seen as something people do on the side, rather than as their primary income.
But also, if that's true, what happens if the economy improves to the point where peoples' jobs do provide adequate income to save a little money for contingencies without having to drive for extra money on the side? In some ways, Uber is a child of the recession; a full recovery might throw off the business model.
Plouffe isn't worried about that eventuality.
"If they’re able to get a wage increase that’s higher than what they’ve gotten, I still think you’ll see them saying 'it’s easier for me if I can make additional money,'" Plouffe said. "I can’t tell you how many drivers I’ve had just anecdotally who say 'I’m using Uber to pay for a new vacation, or buy a new computer.'"
Of course, over the long term, the labor issues are temporary. Uber is racing towards a future in which cars pilot themselves, making the tens of thousands of people on its platform obsolete. Plouffe didn't shrink from that faraway future either.
"This is a pretty long ways off, in terms of when you see mass replacement," he said, after praising the safety benefits of driverless cars. "So in this intervening period, let’s have as much economic activity as we can."
A realistic solution for transportation deserts?
Plouffe isn't just making the case for Uber as an income generator. Citing a study that found commute time is the largest determining factor in economic mobility, he also claimed Uber could become a way for people far from public transportation to get to work — rather than walking or taking a bus to the Metro station, they could just hail a ride.
"Uber can quite literally help transport people out of poverty, offering people affordable rides whenever, wherever they need one," Plouffe said. "For people in transportation deserts who have too little time and too little money, an affordable ride at the press of a button can feel like a small miracle."
That also helps small businesses that might be scattered outside major transportation corridors, he said, allowing people to reach them with a point-to-point ride.
Uber has yet to furnish data that fully supports that idea -- in the example he cited, the Uber ride would cost between $6 and $8, using the uberX product. Add that to a $2-$4 Metro ride, and you've got a cost that most people who are truly on the economic margins can't afford to pay both ways every day.
And what about the question of how Uber is affecting the livelihoods of the hundreds of thousands of traditional cabbies, for whom driving was once a viable full-time job, and now very often is not?
Plouffe says Uber has not done studies on how it has impacted the regulated taxi drivers. He argues that most taxi systems were designed to limit participation, which might have kept wages relatively high, but also kept millions of people out of jobs that might have earned them some income — not to mention driven down personal car ownership in cities.
Uber is growing the transportation pie, Plouffe says — even if the many slivers of time shared by its million drivers are replacing the blocs of time that used to support people who made driving their full-time profession.