Financial exclusion and digital exclusion often go hand in hand

APLE Collective are working as part of a coalition of partners with Good Things Foundation, Clean Slate, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Mastercard to offer immediate support to digitally and financially excluded people in the UK, with a focus on those in poverty hit hardest by the impact of Covid-19.

By Good Things Foundation · 26/06/2020

Coronavirus has taken us all into a new way of living and working. Our social and business interactions have been replaced with digital substitutes such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

For those digitally excluded, however, this means further barriers. For the APLE Collective, digital exclusion means exclusion from having a 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.

The digital divide doesn’t just mean having access to WiFi, it’s also linked to 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. Paying for hardware such as computers and devices is expensive. Another issue is that people who lack digital skills may not have the opportunity to access support to help them use technology. At the same time, APLE Collective member organisations are finding that some initiatives in communities, for example when volunteers are at hand to do shopping for local residents, have been advertised only on websites and via social media platforms. This further excludes those without access to digital.

I’m in a catch-22. I want to improve my life and move forward but at the moment, due to the lockdown and being digitally excluded, I can’t.

We are campaigning and calling on the government to find practical solutions to bridge the digital divide and introduce free WiFi for vulnerable low income groups. In April, APLE Collective sent a letter to Oliver Dowden CBE MP, Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, calling for short term investment and long-term policy change to ensure we become more digitally inclusive as a nation. This month, APLE Collective will be sending letters to Metro Mayors across devolved authorities. We are also working with local authorities and voluntary and community groups on the ground to develop solutions within communities that seek to address the digital divide.

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.

Financial exclusion and digital exclusion often go hand in hand

People are stuck in a catch-22 scenario; with libraries and other sources of free WiFi closed during lockdown, and no access to a smartphone or data, people can’t call to access either social security payments or homelessness services. As Vik* describes:

“I’m street sleeping with no access to a phone or the internet, but I’ve been told that I can only get Universal Credit by calling a number and only get a house if I go online to bid for properties. I’m in a catch-22. I want to improve my life and move forward but at the moment, due to the lockdown and being digitally excluded, I can’t.”

This exclusion often results in people having to ask others for help, borrow WiFi and rely on others.

Pleading for WiFi and having to rely on others

Vitalis is a refugee from Cameroon, based in Manchester, who is the lead person on destitution for APLE Collective member organisation, 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 on my phone…The lockdown has worsened the whole situation because I cannot go out to where I can connect to the network. I can only send emails if I beg to be connected to someone’s WiFi.”

Barriers to accessing support

Improving digital access and skills holds the potential to have a life-changing effect on those of us living in poverty through Covid-19; as Karen*, 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 online, and people struggling with technology or lacking access to the internet fear being sanctioned for a perceived failure to comply.

Working together to bridge the digital divide

Given the overlapping complexity of issues for the digitally excluded, the solutions will need to be creative, responsive and far reaching. Collaboration is key in giving a voice to those who often go unheard. Using lived experience to pave the way forward gives everyone hope for a better future.

APLE Collective and Good Things Foundation are working as part of a coalition of partners including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Clean Slate and Mastercard to develop a digital financial support offer. Now, more than ever before, we have the chance to change the way the system works and make it work for everyone. Foregrounding the expertise of lived experience will be fundamental to successful digital and financial inclusion. You can find out more about the Nobody in the Dark campaign here.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.