The Disconnect: Swallowing Pride and Feeling Locked Out

Artwork by Dan Healey

People in poverty have always had an uphill batter to access the internet. 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 loaned 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 must use more expensive and less reputable outlets and services. 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 accepts 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. Lacking a 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.”

Vitalis Mbah, a refugee from Cameroon who now lives in Manchester, 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 that should have been done at home was forced to be completed the next day in RAPAR, where I can gain access to internet. At the moment the lockdown has worsened the whole situation because I cannot go out to where I can connect to the network. I can send e-mails only if I beg to be connected to someone’s wifi.”

Barriers to accessing benefits

The benefits system has been moving steadily on-line. 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 and 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.”

Brilliant to be able to connect

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.”

Gloria can now use Zoom too. She is part of a non-profit group led by people with lived experience of poverty. They have been training the volunteers of food banks and solidarity cafes to make sure that people are treated with dignity. Thanks to Zoom and to her neighbour’s wifi, Gloria says:

“Last week, I was finally able to join in the meetings again. We talk to the volunteers about how to address people who need their services: are they ‘service users’? Or simply customers? When people first arrive, volunteers should always ask if they want tea so as to not make them feel that they are beggars. It’s important to ask what they want, and what they like.”

If only wifi were free,,,

Vitalis 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, 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. It would enable me to do online research on anything that I fancy, learning new English words and meanings, or learning about creating logos and designs. In short, it would be useful for learning more, communicating, and seeing 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?

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           *