Why the digital divide and not the welfare state is the real poverty trap

Just over eighteen months ago, a report was released by the e-Learning Foundation claiming that children were being increasingly disadvantaged in the classroom.  The report referenced research conducted by the BBC that demonstrated that use of their revision materials online led to a grade lift when compared to those who did not use them.  The implication was clear.  Those without internet access at home (there are over seven million peoplewho have never used the internet according to the most recent figures and 20% of households have no internet connection) will suffer in terms of educational attainment.

I was particularly interested in this research as it formed part of the literature review for my dissertation on community libraries and their relationship with the digital divide.  In researching this area, it was clear that those that are on the wrong side of the divide suffer economically, politically and educationally.  In some respects this divide is nothing new.  For centuries a divide has existed between rich and poor, this is simply another manifestation of this historic divide.  But, of course, just because it is part of an historic trend, does not mean there shouldn’t be a concerted attempt to address this particular area.

Underlining the extent to which school children’s lack of access to the internet impacts upon their educational attainment, Oxford University’s Department of Education recently foundfurther evidence to support the claims made by the e-Learning Foundation.  According to their study:

Teenagers who do not have access to the internet in their home have a strong sense of being ‘educationally disadvantaged’, warns the study. At the time of the study, the researchers estimated that around 10 per cent of the teenagers were without online connectivity at home, with most of this group living in poorer households. While recent figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest this dropped to five per cent in 2012, the researchers say that still leaves around 300,000 children without internet access in their homes. 

That’s 300,000 children who will not achieve what they are capable of due to the lack of access to the internet. And not only 300,000 children, 300,000 children from the poorest households.  Furthermore:

The researchers’ interviews with teenagers reveal that they felt shut out of their peer group socially and also disadvantaged in their studies as so much of the college or school work set for them to do at home required online research or preparation. One teenager, whose parents had separated, explained that he would ring his father who had internet access and any requested materials were then mailed to him through the post. 

Never mind what Iain Duncan Smith says regarding state benefits “trapping” the poorest in society (whatever that means), educational attainment provides the best opportunity for the poorest in society to escape the “poverty trap”.  Consequently, those that do not have the full range of tools available at their disposal are doomed to remain trapped in poverty.  Ensuring there is a level playing field for all pupils must surely be a higher priority for eradicating poverty than the pernicious and unnecessary cuts to the welfare state that we all pay into and all benefit from (it’s always worth remembering that a cut in benefits has an impact on those in work – after all, some of our taxes are paid to ensure that should we lose our jobs, we have paid into a safety net).

Of course for many children the public library is the one place where they have an opportunity to close the gap on their peers and level the educational playing field.  Access to the internet complemented with skilled support can help to close the gap and ensure that those from the poorest backgrounds are not penalised.  However, whilst the existing support is vital, it is being severely limited in a number of areas.

As The Guardian reported last month, 200 libraries were closed during 2012 meaning that for many of the poorest households in those communities the only place that they could access the internet was taken away from them, trapping them in poverty (we might as well stick with the Tory rhetoric).  Trapping them because access to the internet provides the educational support their children need and the economic benefits provided by cheaper services online. Not only are closures an issue, but those libraries that remain can often leave a lot to be desired in terms of access.  Take Barking libraries for example.

Last year, Barking libraries announced, with great pride, that they were introducing a charge for internet access – £12 for residents, £25 for non-residents per year.  Such charges are hardly likely to encourage the poorest households to make use of the internet access provided by the local library service (yes, I am well aware that it amounts to £1 a month and therefore isn’t a huge amount…but it is still a cost that is unnecessary and, as pointed out here, rather goes against the ethos of the People’s Network).

Furthermore, the growth of community libraries are certainly not going to help the 300,000 children disadvantaged by a lack of internet access.  As my research into them revealed [pdf], providing support in accessing the internet is not a key concern.  Whilst they will certainly provide access (and often free of charge), they do not provide the level of trained support that a library run by a local authority can provide (‘can’ because even libraries run by local authorities sometimes fail in this regard).  If they do not have access to the internet in their own homes, the chances are that they will require the skilled support as they obviously will not have the same degree of experience as some of their peers.  It is, therefore, essential for this group that there is both a local library providing free internet access and skilled support.  Without both those from the poorest households will remain “educationally disadvantaged”.

If this government is serious about eradicating the poverty trap (and they go on about it often enough to make one assume that they are serious – or maybe they are just playing cynical politics…), then they need to address this disparity.  If we continue to overlook the 300,000 children disadvantaged by a lack of internet access we will continue to condemn another generation to the poverty trap.  There are steps the government can take to ensure that the playing field is levelled. The question is this: are the government serious about lifting the poorest in society out of the poverty trap, or are they just employing empty rhetoric? I suspect we all know the answer.