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Tackling digital poverty - alarming UK statistics provide a cautionary warning for other countries

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton April 12, 2024
Summary:
Elizabeth Anderson, CEO of the Digital Poverty Alliance, offers her assessment of an issue that isn't limited to the UK...

exclusion

In recent years, we have heard much about issues such as digital exclusion, the numbers of people who are offline, and related challenges such as poor rural broadband connectivity. So, with more and more essential services only available online, what is the reality? Here's a UK focus, but the learnings are applicable internationally. 

First the good news: on the face of it, there is much to celebrate. According to the most recent research from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), “92% of adults” in the UK were recent internet users in 2020, up from 91% in 2019. That figure includes nearly all (99%) of those aged 16 (not 18) to 44, and 54% of people aged over 75. 

So far so good. In total, just 6.3% of adults had never used the internet in 2020, down from 7.5% in 2019. And with pandemic lockdowns a fading memory, there is every reason to assume that the situation has improved significantly since then.

But there is a problem with this seemingly optimistic snapshot of Digital Britain. First, six percent of roughly 40 million adults is still a big number: 2.4 million people who are unable to access essential services online in any shape or form. And second, the figures create a false impression of how many people are actually online in any meaningful, practical sense. 

That’s because, to compile them, the ONS simply asked respondents if they had used the internet at any point, and by any means, in the preceding three months. 

That might include someone using an old PC once in a Job Center, or in a community drop-in, or in a local library – 800 of which have closed since 2010. Or it might include an unemployed person asking a Job Center employee to fill out an online application for them, because they were unable to do it themselves. Or a teenager borrowing a one-parent family’s pay-as-you-go smartphone so they could do their homework, or a shared laptop at college, or a friend’s tablet. 

In other words, the ONS’ term “recent internet users” is doing a lot of heavy lifting, and any claim that 92% of adults are actually online in the UK would be highly misleading. A hypothetical single use of an internet-capable device in a three-month period is not the same as “being online”, in the same way that walking once to a corner shop would not make someone a globetrotter.

So, the key measure is not digital exclusion, but a phenomenon that is subtler and more troubling in a nation where food banks – 1,646 Trussell Trust facilities and 1,172 others – far outnumber branches of McDonald’s (1,450+). 

And that is: digital poverty.

Poverty 

Elizabeth Anderson is CEO of an organization called the Digital Poverty Alliance, a charitable coalition of governmental, non-governmental, educational, and private organizations that seeks to stamp out the problem by 2030. Describing it as a silent crisis, especially in schools, she explains:

We say that someone is in digital poverty when they cannot access the internet and digital services when, where, and how they choose to. Those words are carefully picked, because digital poverty is about not having any choice. 

Some people might choose to exclude themselves from digital services and the online world, but that would be an active choice. With digital poverty, people don't have the ability to get online, when, where, and how they need to.

This might include individuals, families, or households who lack an internet-capable device of their own, or who have a single device between several people – the owner of which may be out at work, leaving everyone else offline. Or the many people who can no longer afford to pay for broadband or mobile connectivity at a time of soaring inflation, tax, and energy bills.

But it might also include people in areas that lack viable broadband infrastructures – in rural communities or inner-city estates, for example. Plus, some surprising groups, such as the families of lower ranks in the armed forces. Many military bases lack broadband connectivity for residents, says Anderson, forcing families to mix and match their own solutions at their own expense.

Digital poverty is far more widespread than government claims of an online populace would have us believe. Indeed, the figures are stark, says Anderson:

Deloitte did some pro-bono research for us. It found that, across the population, one in seven people [roughly 9.5 million citizens] is in some form of digital poverty. That might be lack of devices, poor connectivity, or lack of skills. But one in 17 [nearly four million people] is in severe digital poverty. They have no access to a device when they need it, and/or no connectivity, and/or no skills to use basic functionality on a laptop or phone.

Now put those figures in the context of essential services, such as tax, benefits, banking, healthcare, and more, moving online. The result is that digital poverty reinforces real poverty. It is a cause of financial hardship as much as an effect or expression of it. The two are interrelated, locked in a fatal embrace.

And real poverty is widespread too. According to social-change organization the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, more than one in five UK citizens (22%) were in financial poverty in 2021/22. That is 14.4 million people, including 8.1 million working-age adults and 4.2 million children – many of whom may be sacrificing food, heat, or light so they can prioritize some form of online access.

So, how does digital poverty lead to, or deepen, real poverty? Anderson explains:

Think about how we are obliged to access everything online these days, including most essential services. Then think about somebody who is on a very low income – or someone who has lost everything, been in prison, been abandoned by their employed partner, or escaped from an abusive situation. 

For such people, there are several things they need to do quickly. One, access immediate financial support. And in the UK, you start by claiming Universal Credit, and by contacting your local authority to look for support. But you can only apply for Universal Credit online!

Meanwhile, the benefits system is changing, and existing benefits are coming to an end, so you have to make that move. But you can only do it online. You need access to a device and data to be able to get onto Universal Credit. This really feels the wrong way around, that we are expecting people to pay – for broadband, devices, and mobile connectivity – just to access basic welfare support.”

And that is not all. The UK Government is actively removing every alternative means of contacting benefit or tax departments, by shutting phone lines and closing help desks. Meanwhile, local branches of banks and other town-centre services are shutting, again forcing people to use online alternatives that many have no access to when they need it. Countless other services are moving online, making the only means of contacting them a chatbot. 

Remember those figures: 14.4 million people are in real poverty, 9.5 million in some form of digital poverty, and nearly four million in severe digital poverty, with little or no access when they need it. Four million people with no choices in an online-only world. Anderson continues:

Let’s assume you have somehow managed to apply for that benefit – by borrowing a phone or computer, or using one in a drop-in center. The next thing you might need is training. And certainly, you're going to want to look for a job. In terms of training, the vast majority is now online. And to find work, you need to produce a CV, which means access to a keyboard. Meanwhile, 92% of jobs are only advertised online! 

So, even with just these basic pieces of the puzzle, someone on a low income or in severe digital poverty is actively excluded from being able to bring financial support into the household. And held back from any aspirations they might have to find work and become self-sufficient.

She adds:

There’s still this belief in many places – even among providers – that the internet is a luxury, not an essential utility. But in 2024, with so many essential services only available online, that really isn’t the case.

Kids

So, why does digital poverty affect children the most? One problem is that, in many schools, homework can only be completed online – the days of submitting essays on paper are long gone. Anderson says:

Children are massively impacted in terms of their education. When households are on low incomes, it's those children who struggle, because they're not even able to do their homework. This isn't supposition. We talk to teenagers who are doing their exam coursework on borrowed phones. And kids who have no choice but to write and file essays or create graphs – documents that will be graded – on a pay-as-you-go smartphone. 

One in five children has no access to a device or connectivity that is suitable for learning. They might be living in a household where the mother has a smartphone, for example, but she might work late and so needs that phone herself. One smartphone in a household means they are ‘online’ statistically, but it does not mean those children have the right tools to do their homework or coursework.”

Government statistics typically define a child as being someone under 16, rather than 18, as they can leave school at 16 and look for work. By that definition, there are 12.7 million children in the UK, according to 2020 ONS statistics. So, one in five children means 2.5 million have no access to a suitable device or connectivity – when they need it, the key definer of digital poverty. Anderson explains:

Even pre-pandemic, half of all schools would only set homework online. So, children in those schools who were in severe digital poverty had no option to submit work using pen and paper. They had to do it online. And we know those online-only figures are growing fast, post pandemic. 

So, digital poverty directly impacts education, because there’s this supposition that parents will not only be able to provide a device, but also pay for monthly connectivity, which really isn't cheap. Where that's lacking, children are falling behind – and in many cases, being sanctioned or given detention. 

But even that is not the key point. The big impact is on their futures, because their grades are incredibly important in making the next educational or employability step.

She adds:

Then there's everything that sits underneath that. If you’re not online, you can’t access cheaper deals, or use comparison websites. We say there is a ‘poverty premium’, where completing the simplest tasks is far more expensive offline. Applying for a driving license is a perfect example: if you go to a Post Office, you pay extra. 

For all these reasons, digital poverty sits beneath what many people would consider to be real, relative poverty, because you do not have the same opportunities that somebody online has – to find education, training, and employment. And to access essential welfare services, plus cheaper deals, lower energy bills, and cheaper food.

But for people struggling on low incomes, getting online is both expensive and a long-term financial commitment.

So, how realistic is the Digital Poverty Alliance’s mission to stamp out this problem as early as 2030? After all, the challenges seem so complex and intractable, and perhaps worsening as real poverty deepens for many? Anderson argues: 

It’s essential. Both in terms of galvanizing people behind the cause, and because it has to be achievable. There isn't any other option, because of this push to move everything online...All the alternatives are actively being closed.

Does government understand the extent of the problem? Anderson says there's a fixation on the figures for complete digital exclusion, which blind policymakers to the realities of life for millions in an online-only world:

There isn't the level of ambition and focus that we would like to see. And we know that's partly because of not seeing the reality. The House of Lords conducted an inquiry last year, a thorough look at the state of digital poverty and exclusion in the UK. But the response that came back from the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology was, in all honesty, really disappointing. And the Lords felt the same, that it was a missed opportunity. 

But it’s Election year, and whoever comes into government will, to all intents and purposes, be producing a plan that will cover the rest of the decade. So, we are calling on all major political parties to ensure that they include action on digital poverty in their manifestos.

My take

Amen to that. If you can help the Digital Poverty Alliance achieve its aim via greater inclusion, strategy, policy, equipment, and training, please get in touch with via its website

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