In this digital age we now live in the world seems so much smaller and accessible than ever before, but only for some. For those not riding high on the wave of new technology, the digital divide is an ever-growing expanse of exclusion, isolation and despair.

          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. This adaptation has helped to ensure that for some businesses the wheel can keep on turning, albeit at a much slower rate than before the lockdown measures were applied. However, for those living within the constraints of poverty, adapting is easier said than done. But what can be done? How do we support those living in poverty to adapt when, for some, their only focus has been surviving day to day? First, we must try to understand the scale of the issue.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted in their UK Poverty Report 2019-20, that:

 “around 22% of people in the UK where living in poverty. This equates to 14 million people made up of 8 million working age adults, 4 million children and 2 million pensioners.”

The report also states that;

 “around 56% of people living in poverty are from a working household.”

Meaning 7.840 million people living in poverty are from a working household – an unacceptable number. Reports in the media, and from the Department for Work and Pensions, suggest that almost 1 million people successfully claimed universal credit in the first fortnight after lockdown was announced. That is 10 times higher than any other fortnight the DWP had experienced previously and the figures only include new claimants whose claims where approved. The true figures of people trying to access Universal Credit will likely be in the millions. The longer the crisis, the more people are likely to be swept away by the rising tide of poverty. For those who have not been able to secure an anchor from the benefits system, it can and will be very difficult to keep their heads above water.

          What does this mean for people living in poverty? People whose only access to the world outside their own was through social gatherings or accessing community areas and WIFI networks? Options are now more limited than ever and digital exclusion and isolation act as strong currents, dragging people deeper into the poverty trap. APLE member Hartlepool Action Lab have been working to support those living in the most chaotic of circumstances. One young man we have been supporting told us:

“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.”

                                                                                        -HAL beneficiary, 24

Poverty is much more complex than being an issue around money, just as homelessness is much more complex than being an issue about housing. Juli Simons and Julian Penton work as Development Officers at Hartlepower CIO and are front runners in the digital inclusion race in Hartlepool, they said:

“It’s becoming clearer by the day – as more services move online, and people rely more on virtual means to connect with friends and to maintain their social networks – that being digitally connected is as much a necessity as fuel and food. We need to do whatever we can right now to help people to get online – such as by calling for donations for devices and data/credit and getting these out to people in need. We also need to think slightly longer term about how to work together within Hartlepool to build a more digitally inclusive town. Hartlepool projects such as InControl-Able have years of experience of getting older people and people with disabilities online – one of our challenges is scaling up excellent initiatives, such as InControl-Able, that have led the way. There’s also a good case for advocating for national initiatives that ensure everyone, whatever their means or abilities, can function digitally.”

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. Now, more than never before, we have the chance to change the way the system works and make it work for everyone.

As APLE this week sends a letter to Oliver Dowden CBE, Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, we begin on the path to right the wrongs of poverty and digital exclusion. Calling for short term investment and long-term policy change to ensure we become more digitally inclusive, gives more people living within the constraints of poverty a chance to improve their prospects. We are going to need a huge investment and a monumental shift in the way things have worked before. However, we care enough to seek justice and will not stand by and allow digital exclusion to be a part of our society any longer.

Written by Hartlepool Action Lab, in collaboration with the APLE Collective.