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Lack of access to the internet is hurting poor families.

April 28, 2020 6:00 PM
Originally published by East Suffolk Liberal Democrats

Living in Poverty in Britain in 21st century child poverty

Access to the internet is neither universally available nor free. Covid-19 has highlighted the essential need to have access to the internet for home schooling support, access to benefits and credit and avoiding financial exclusion, not least for vulnerable low income groups.


The following extracts are from the second of a series of blogs by the APLE Collective

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."

Financial exclusion and digital exclusion 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

In addition to supporting her daughter's schoolwork, Gloria is studying for a health-care qualification, learning to give injections and calculate medication dosages. She used to go to the library to do her coursework.

"Even then it was difficult because of the limits on your time. You can't stay very long if you need to go home to look after your child. For assessments, we need to print things, so I would pay 10p for each page. Now that I'm using my neighbour's wifi, I took two assessments online at home - but I was really scared of getting cut off in the middle. I had to plead with him not to use the wifi for anything that would interrupt my network during the exams."

Barriers to accessing benefits

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. In Feltham, a woman describes the challenges she faces in looking for work and demonstrating that she remains qualified to receive the Job Seekers Allowance, even in the midst of a national lockdown:

"There is no rest or break for me at the moment. I don't have the luxury of stopping looking for a job. So I don't get sanctioned and still get to receive my JSA benefit I have to stay in contact with my job agency. They have asked me to download an app to do a video chat for some sort of training next week. So I have to make sure my internet allowance is topped up."

Patricia, who lives in London, has a job on a zero hours contract but needs internet access to communicate with her employer:

"They email me my hours. If I didn't have wifi access, they'd have to text or phone me, which I know they can't always do. And since I haven't got access to a computer, I can't print off my time sheets. I have to ask someone on the staff at work to do it for me. But I don't like having to rely on anyone else to print off stuff for me."

Internet is not a luxury

In addition to needing smartphones and wifi for further education, work, and administrative requirements, Gloria explains:

"It's really significant to have internet access because everything these days is done electronically. Not having wifi is like being locked out of the world. I used to use wifi on the bus to see the news. At the beginning of the lockdown, I felt locked out because I didn't know what was going on. And if you have the internet, you can phone people for free with WhatsApp even if your phone is not topped up - but if they don't have internet, you're stuck. The internet is not a luxury at all."

As a member of ATD Fourth World, Patricia is part of the steering committee for a conference being planned by Amnesty UK. Just as the lockdown began, she needed to learn to use Zoom for a steering committee meeting. She describes her experience trying to learn to use an unfamiliar app alone:

"It was a bloody nightmare! At first I could see everyone-but couldn't hear anyone, so I felt like chucking the phone out the window. When people are not technical, it's only with help that you get to understand it. If someone hasn't got help, they've got no one to go to."

Before the end of that first Zoom meeting, Patricia received help and succeeded in figuring it out. Since then, she has also used Zoom for meetings of On Road Media and Poverty2Solutions. This has meant a lot to her:

"At the moment it's very very important to keep people in touch with each other. I saw friends on Zoom who I hadn't seen for two months and who hadn't gone on Facebook in a long time. It was brilliant to know that they're okay. When you're worried about people, you need to see their faces."

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 include and involve the voices of people with lived experience, in order that the government's response can be both timely and effective in low-income communities.

This is the second of a series of blogs by the APLE Collective (of which ATD Fourth World is a founding member) 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:

@aplecollective * contact@aplecollective.com