2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 APLE Collective

Crossing the Digital Divide is essential to ensuring that the response to COVID-19 includes us all

For the APLE (Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience) 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. 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 are campaigning, asking the government to find practical solutions to cross the digital divide and introduce free wi-fi 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 usersCOVID19 has shone a spotlight on this 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 the Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience (APLE) Collective are all about amplifying voice, connecting people and this is proving difficult without technology. 

Life is getting tougher for the nation as a whole, people are feeling frightened for their jobs. As the Guardian reports 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. 

Accessing the internet has always been an uphill battle for people in poverty. Now that social distancing measures have pulled the shutters down on public places that offered free access, that struggle is even harder.

“Before the lockdown, my daughter stayed after school every day to use the internet there for her homework. Now, without wifi of our own, I had to swallow my pride to ask our neighbour if we could piggyback onto his network from our flat. He agreed, but I feel like I should be able to chip in for his bill so that I don’t have to rely too much on him.”

– Gloria in Scotland

Although some schools have managed to give tablets to students who need them, Gloria’s daughter, age 15, received nothing. Before making this arrangement with her neighbour, Gloria said: “I had to buy a pay-as-you-go bundle on my phone because otherwise she could not do her homework.”

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. 

Financial exclusion and digital exclusion often go hand in hand.

People on very low incomes with no access to credit are forced to use outlets and services that are more expensive and less reputable. Before the lockdown, a woman in south London tried to buy a refurbished smartphone on a very small budget. Because she has no fixed abode, she cannot open even a basic bank account and has no bank card. So she used a small shop that would take cash payments; but they sold her a faulty phone with no warranty. She then discovered that she could have purchased a new phone for a cheaper price at a high street shop — however that chain already had a no-cash policy in place and she did not qualify for their credit service, making it impossible for her to shop there. Having no smartphone during the lockdown has effectively cut her off from her support network.

Pleading for wifi and having to rely on others

Vitalis is a refugee from Cameroon in Manchester who is the lead person on destitution for RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research). He says:

“Given the fact that I do not have wifi at home, even before the lockdown I was unable to download important documents at home while researching with my phone. This did not help me to manage my time efficiently since casework which should have been done at home was forced to be completed the next day in RAPAR where I can gain access to internet. At moment the lockdown has worsened the whole situation because I cannot go out to where I can connect to the network. I can only send e-mails if I beg to be connected to someone’s wifi.”

Barriers to accessing benefits

Improving digital access and skills holds the potential to have a life changing affect on those of us living in poverty through COVID-19 Lockdown as Karen, not her real name, 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…‘ 

The benefits system has been moving steadily on-line and people struggling with access and technology can receive sanctions for a perceived failure to comply

What is being done?

There are some positive and compassionate moves being made by 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 what is little mentioned in the rhetoric so far, are those almost completely excluded from the digital world, as the reflection of Liz, not her real name, 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’

If only wifi were free….

Vitalis, as a member of RAPAR, and a refugee, can imagine many ways that free wifi would transform his life:

“Getting in contact with my lawyer either through e-mail or Whatsapp would be a plus, because I am unable to get to her at this moment. I would be able to carry on more research using the internet and thus perfecting my skills. During my leisure periods I would be able to listen to music and watch movies of my choice. In a nutshell, it would be very important for me because it would enable me to stay in touch with the rest of the world … In short, it would be useful to learn more, communicate and see how the world operates. The internet enhances self-studies and research and I absolutely need to be part of this.”

What can be done to bridge the digital divide?

These unprecedented times, require unprecedented solutions. The Good Things Foundation state 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’.  

APLE Collective 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.

We encourage social workers to ask their clients how the digital divide impacts on them and to assess their needs and aspirations around digital inclusion. For children and families, this could include assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, and the use of associated monies.

This article is adapted from series of blogs by the APLE Collective about 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:

Twitter: @aplecollective