Crossing the digital divide is essential to ensuring that the response to COVID-19 includes us all, say the Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience (APLE) Collective.
For the APLE Collective, digital exclusion means exclusion from voice, from an ability to participate in the everyday. It means being silenced. It means our knowledge is ignored, which exacerbates economic and social divides. As a result, a digital divide opens.
The digital divide doesn't just mean having access to wifi, but the ability to pay for it. Our communities who live on a low income or social security benefits are unable to pay for this access. The digital divide also incurs expenses when paying for hardware (computers and devices) and finally people may not have the opportunity to access support to help them use technology.
We ask the Government to find practical solutions to cross the digital divide and introduce free wifi for vulnerable low-income groups. According to the Office for National Statistics, ‘in 2018 there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10.0% of the adult UK population’ who are non-internet users.
How digital exclusion affects low-income communities
COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on a digital divide and the effects of digital exclusion on low-income communities. Communities are feeling isolated, forgotten about and unable to communicate their expertise and thoughts.
We at APLE are all about amplifying voice and connecting people, and this is proving difficult without technology. Activists across the country are describing situations where people who are already caught in rolling waves of poverty, without access (or enough data to access) the internet, are drowning, self-isolating and unable to afford food or medication.
There are some positive and compassionate moves being made by the Government to try to buffer the economy from the effects of COVID-19. The Department for Culture Media and Sport have announced recently that they are working with mobile phone companies to improve access for low-income groups. However, those almost completely excluded from the digital world are little-mentioned in the rhetoric so far, as the reflection of this woman living on a low income illustrates:
How am I supposed to know what is going on? I'm stuck in my house and I get that it's for our own good, but I can't get my shopping. I think I have enough in the house to last me a few days. My family live out of town and I don't know who can help me. I see things on the news that communities are coming together and getting notes of support through their door. I'm 64 years old, can't get about and nobody (up until Thrive getting in touch) in this town has asked if I am ok. Why are they not letting us know about any support? This is really scary.
Improving digital access and skills can unlock opportunities
These unprecedented times require unprecedented solutions. The Good Things Foundation states that ‘providing everyone in the UK with the essential digital skills they need by 2028 will lead to a benefit of £15 for every £1 invested, and a net present value of £21.9 billion’.
Improving digital access and skills holds the potential to have a life-changing effect on those of us living in poverty through COVID-19 lockdown, as this woman trying to access social security support describes:
I'm sick of getting texts off the dole asking me to log on to my journal... I've told them before I have no internet. I have been trying to ring them, but can't get through. I'm worried sick. Will I still get my payment which is due this week, do I have to be doing job searches? They are not really telling us much...
Practical and emotional impact
Life is getting tougher for the nation as a whole. People are feeling frightened for their jobs. As reports show that 950,000 apply for Universal Credit in two weeks, many are experiencing the delays, bureaucracy and inadequacies of Universal Credit for the first time. People are trapped in houses without access to food supplies and, without access to the digital world, cannot get news updates, public health notices, home-educate children, access food deliveries or update Universal Credit job searches.
In line with the public health response to the pandemic, libraries have closed. For many locked in poverty, libraries were the only source of online access: a place to job search, access educational resources for the family and stay in touch with the outside world. Being excluded from what has been - for most of the nation - an almost exclusively digital coping response to the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 lockdown, is having both practical and emotional impacts on people locked in poverty.
APLE Collective member organisations are finding that, in some areas, initiatives in the community, for example when volunteers are at hand to do your shopping, have been advertised only on websites and via social media platforms.
Digital exclusion effectively means exclusion from modern life. Fundamentally, if you can’t get access to current public health information you can’t follow government guidance. If you can’t get online you can’t access social security support, request a vulnerable persons food parcel scheme or support your children to home-school, or contact your children easily if you live apart from them or they are in care.
What can be done to bridge the digital divide?
We ask the Government to find practical solutions to cross the digital divide and introduce free wifi for vulnerable low-income groups. We ask that this work includes and involves the voices of people with lived experience, in order that their response is both timely and effective in low-income communities.
This is the first of a series of blogs by the APLE Collective that will discuss the lived experience of people trapped in poverty and living through the COVID-19 lockdown. We invite you to join us, to get involved and to contribute to our campaigning: