Digital poverty and its impact on the UK

9 out of 10 people living in low income households are giving up the internet in order to pay other essential bills

Most people think that digital poverty doesn’t affect us in the UK. But, recent studies show that 9 out of 10 low-income households in the UK are so worried about paying their bills, that they will have to give up the internet.

Though, with so much of our lives dominated by digital technology, how will giving up the internet affect people?

86% of adults use the internet every day.

In 2020, the average time spent online was just under 25 hours a week.

In the UK, almost every service and company can be found on the internet, and often there aren’t any (good) ways around this. Without access to the internet, people from low-income households will experience several disadvantages compared to the rest of us.

Digital poverty in the UK is a serious issue. Without immediate action, our economy could be feeling the effects of the digital divide for many years to come.

Listen to the discussion on BBC Wiltshire: ~ We spoke with Sue Kinnear on 27/07/22 regarding the digital divide and its impact on society. The interview starts 14 minutes into the show

11 million people in the UK are experiencing digital exclusion

ONS – Office for National Statistics

What is the digital divide?

The digital divide refers to a gap in skills and knowledge of technology. It is a term that describes the separation between people who have IT and the knowledge to use it, and those who don’t. Typically, this divide is caused by income, age, ethnicity, or disability.

Those experiencing ‘digital poverty’ become excluded from all the benefits that come from internet access. Therefore, someone who lacks IT skills or computer hardware will find everyday life much harder.

the effects of digital poverty the the UK: less job opportunities, less income, less mental health support, higher cost of shopping, time wasted, less access to news, less connection with others

Have you accidentally left your mobile at home when you’ve gone out? It’s horrible. We don’t realize just how much we use our phones (and the internet in general) until they aren’t there. Spend a day without the internet and I bet you’ll start to appreciate just how important it is. Want to check your bank account? There’s an app for that. Similarly, if you want to access government services like benefit schemes or claim your tax back? You’ll need to refer to the website. Hell, even going to the doctors requires an online symptom-checker beforehand.

We’re so used to digital technology being deeply engrained in our lives, that we fail to see how hard life would be without it.

How much do people use the internet?

The average user spends 6.9 hours a day surfing the web. If you think back to before computers were largely popular, most things came in print or face-to-face only. I couldn’t just ask Siri a question and get our answer within seconds. I couldn’t just look at what clothes are on sale from my favourite brand. No, I had to subscribe to a catalogue or visit the store in person. There are hundreds of ways that the internet has shaped the World around us (for good or bad).

We aren’t just using the internet in our downtime. Most companies will expect a certain level of competency when it comes to using computers at work. Around 28.7% of internet users say they need to access social media for work. Without even a basic level of IT knowledge, many companies will not hire you. You simply cannot perform all of the tasks needed to do the job without extra training. Training that competing applicants don’t need.

Indeed, it doesn’t matter what field you work in either. Most roles nowadays require some use of IT: EPOS systems, pin machines, barcode readers, stock systems etc.

In 2020, 92% of businesses said they were looking for candidates with at least a basic understanding of IT.

What is life like without the internet?

Speaking of finding jobs, have you tried searching for a job using traditional methods? It’s near impossible. Organisations aren’t advertising positions in newspapers and the like anymore, it’s all done online. And forget about handing your paper CV into a shop. Most companies won’t accept paper CVs anymore, only online applications. So finding a job is difficult, but getting a job is even harder. A large proportion of digitally excluded people won’t get hired because of their lack of digital skills.

As more of our lives go online, employers want to ensure that both their company and their team can develop along with the changing times. Someone who lacks digital skills would simply take more training (and money) to get their knowledge up to a reasonable standard. That’s a cost that employers don’t want to fork out for.

Digital poverty can have a negative impact on your job opportunities

The effects of digital poverty

  • It is estimated that the digitally excluded will earn (on average) 3-10% less than their computer-literate co-workers. This is due to their lack of skills.
  • Shopping is likely to cost them around 13% more because they can’t access as many coupons, deals and choices. Plus, most brand-reward schemes are almost all online too.
  • Those living in digital poverty will spend 30 minutes longer (on average) when trying to access government services.
  • Without internet access, a person has fewer opportunities for further education (as a lot of courses are online only).
  • You can’t click and collect – This might seem trivial, but imagine if you were disabled or in ill health and you wanted to order groceries. Without the ability to shop online, people are forced to go to the store.
  • A lack of technology means that they won’t be able to see regular news updates, or access mental health services as easily.
  • A large advantage of the internet is its’ ability to connect people. Whether it’s a zoom call with friends, online dating, or any other community that hangs out online, people without the skills and hardware are left out of the conversation. There are hundreds upon thousands of communities out there, each with its own niche. So many people report that finding like-minded people online has improved their mental health. Everyone needs to have access to community groups.

85% of internet users agree that the internet has improved their connection with friends and family

Good Things Foundation

Who experiences digital poverty?

There isn’t a simple answer for this. However digital poverty has been linked to age, ethnic group, household income, region, employability status, and disabilities.

A recent survey from Ofcom suggested that the people most at risk of digital exclusion were: people aged 75+ (26%), DE households* (14%) and the unemployed (13%).

*DE refers to households whose primary earners are semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers, casual and lowest grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only, and state pensioners.

Why are people giving up the internet?

The rising cost of living

Digital poverty as shown in light pollution in the USA

With the cost of living skyrocketing, many homes will face the hard decision of whether to pay for their broadband or stock up on groceries.

Since the Coronavirus outbreak and resulting lockdowns, we’ve seen the price of pretty much everything increase. But our wages aren’t increasing at the same rate as the cost of living. This is causing people to sink further into poverty (as even working individuals can’t keep up with inflation).

People who were once on the poverty line, have now fallen far below it. Many unfortunate families are giving up their cars as fuel prices have priced them out of driving. Others are cutting the ethernet cable and saving their money by getting rid of broadband tariffs.

Now that may seem like a good way to save money, however, the internet is believed to pay for itself. When you take into consideration the benefits that it brings, you save more money than you spend.

The digital divide is growing, and if inflation doesn’t settle down, it will only continue to get worse.

“61% of adults agree that internet access should be recognised as an essential utility”

Good Things Foundation, 2020

Forced into foodbanks

As the price of everything has gone up, so has the number of people in poverty. In March of 2022, an estimated 6.7 million people were surviving off of donations from food banks. This figure comes before energy bills shot through the ceiling, so I’m sure it has increased.

There are more food banks in the UK now than there ever have been, but they simply cannot keep up with demand.

A survey from the Food Standards Agency showed that 1 in 5 people had lowered portion sizes or skipped meals to make ends meet.

For these households, there aren’t any other ways to save money. They’re having to make sacrifices like giving up broadband, mobile phone contracts or personal vehicles.

The surprising thing is, that although the use of food banks has grown, the rate of unemployment has decreased. This means that even full-time workers are on the list of people receiving food packages.

More people are relying on foodbanks to subsidize their rising living costs

Inflation causes low income families to give up the internet

Wages don’t stretch far enough

Another factor in the rise of poverty is income. In the past 15 years, payslips haven’t adapted to reflect the rising cost of goods and services. While the National Living Wage has risen slightly, it’s still not high enough to account for all the extra money that we’re all having to spend.

According to a study in May, it’s estimated that the National ‘Living Wage’ is about 40 pence lower than what it costs the average person to live a basic lifestyle.

Zero-hour contracts

Although there are more people at work, the number of zero-hour contracts has almost doubled in the past decade. Consequently, the result of this is people who are ‘technically’ employed but aren’t earning enough to survive. The company doesn’t have to give them any hours one week and may expect them to work 40 the week after.

This type of contract has become more popular with employers as they can adjust their schedules when footfall is quiet, and up them during the busy season. But, it means that their employees have no regular source of income. What income they do make is irregular and can change drastically from one month to the next.

It’s not for lack of trying either. A fifth of people working in low-income jobs claim that they would work extra hours if they were available. Many are even taking on secondary employment to cover their bills.

Nevertheless, businesses struggling to re-emerge from a difficult trading period, don’t have many spare hours or part-time positions available.

What to do if you’re experiencing digital poverty

There are several schemes out there to help people get online. The government recognise the impact of digital poverty and has capped internet tariffs so that it will stay affordable for everyone.

Did you know, that for every £1 invested in fighting digital poverty, the UK government benefits an estimated £15? No wonder they want you online!

IT skills are becoming increasingly vital to everyday life, and the higher-ups know this. By 2040, researchers think that at least 90% of all jobs will require at least a basic level of computer knowledge.

Are you experiencing financial difficulty? Social tariffs are designed to help. Reach out to your service provider and explain your situation; they may surprise you.

Virgin Media and O2 are among the companies that have pledged to support low-income households. There might be a social tariff out there that you’re eligible for.

In addition, there are now many charities that are donating devices, data and basic IT training to individuals. The approach must be threefold: without data, your device is relatively worthless, without the knowledge of how to use them, devices are useless.

Research some of the many initiatives that are out there to help. You can find a few of them in the ‘resources’ section at the bottom of this article.

How can you help fight digital exclusion?

I can’t talk about the fight against digital poverty without mentioning Green Machine’s Tech Amnesty campaign.

For several years now, our team have been taking unwanted devices from the public, repairing and upgrading them before then donating them to people at risk of digital exclusion.

During the Coronavirus lockdowns, Green Machine was able to successfully refurbish and donate over 500 devices to local school children. It was important for our team to help their local community during a difficult time. We knew we needed to help the many kids that would inevitably struggle to complete their schoolwork. It wouldn’t take long before disadvantaged children fell way behind their classmates due to a lack of access to appropriate devices.

The Tech Amnesty campaign is still running and now helps to support charities and non-profit organisations as well as schools. This year, we have donated refurbished devices to refugees, children’s hospices, youth groups, the fire service, homeless charities, women’s shelters, and many more worthy recipients.

The impact that these donations make is astounding. Digital inclusion can have dramatic benefits to mental health, employment, and wellbeing.

If you have unwanted tech lying around your home/offices, you can donate them to our fight against digital poverty here: www.greenmachinecomputers/techamnesty

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