How “austerity” will exacerbate the effects of the digital divide

Image c/o Derek Bruff on Flickr.

During the last parliament, the Coalition government introduced a number of changes to the benefits system, one of the key changes for the unemployed was the introduction of Universal Jobmatch and the requirement to use the service to seek employment. The problems with this service were obvious (to all apart from the government it appeared). Despite the perception that we are all online in this digital world, there remains a significant proportion of the population that have either never been online or do not have internet access at home.

The latest figures by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) underline that despite a decline in numbers of people that have never used the internet (down 1% to 5.9m people in total), lack of connectivity remains a significant hurdle for a sizeable proportion of the working age population. Whilst there has been positive talk in the media about the steady decline of those that have never been online (whilst noting with some surprise that even in this day and age there are people who have never opened a web browser), there has been little exploration of the impact this divide has in terms of government policy (Sky hints at it in their sub-headline – “despite the internet being a key part of everyday life” but doesn’t go beyond that).

According to the estimates provided by the ONS, approximately 1.4m people of working age have never used the internet (ie people aged from 16-64). Although the figures are not available with regard to internet access within the home, we can safely assume that there are more than 1.4m people of working age that do not have an internet connection at home. That said, the ONS does report that around 1.1m people overall last used the internet more than three months ago which would lead us to estimate approximately 6-7m do not have internet access at home. We’re probably getting on for nearly 2m people of working age that do not have the internet at home (although that’s a guess based on the available data, rather than evidence based). How many of those are also currently unemployed is difficult to say as the ONS report doesn’t provide this level of data.

Estimates for number of people that have never used the internet by age (%age).

Percentage of people that have never used the internet by age.

Furthermore, the figures are particularly stark when it comes to disabled people. According to ONS estimates, 3m people “who self-assess that they have a disability in line with the Equality Act definition of disability” (to use the ONS terms) have never used the internet – approximately 27% of disabled adults. Furthermore, of the 1.1m who had last used the internet more than three months ago, 0.5m were disabled adults. For the 16-24 age bracket, 95% were recent users of the internet compared to 99% for non-disabled users.

The estimates for both those of working age and disabled people underlines the difficulties many will suffer due to government policy towards benefits and unemployment. Both those that have never used the internet and those who do not have access at home face significant barriers in terms of seeking employment. They are at a disadvantage anyway due to the increasing expectation by employers that applications will be submitted online, the government’s reinforcement of this by requiring the use of Universal Jobmatch simply exacerbates the problem. That the areas where the numbers of people that have never accessed the internet also tend to be areas of the country with high unemployment simply underlines the difficulties many will face.

According to the ONS, the ten regions with the highest proportion of the population that have never accessed the internet are:

Counties %age never been online
Northern Ireland 18.8
Highlands and Islands 16.9
Cornwall and Isles of Scilly 16.8
West Wales and the Valleys 15.7
Lincolnshire 15.2
Merseyside 14.8
South Western Scotland 14.6
South Yorkshire 14.4
Lancashire 14.3
West Midlands 13.3

The regions with the lowest proportion of people who have never used the internet:

Counties %age never been online
Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire 9.8
Dorset and Somerset 9.6
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire 9.5
Outer London 9
Kent 9
Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Bristol/Bath area 9
North Eastern Scotland 8.5
Inner London 8.2
Surrey, East and West Sussex 7.9
Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire 6.7

It hardly comes as a great surprise to see southern counties with a low proportion of people that have never used the internet, whilst the north has significantly higher proportions in some cases (there’s an 8.5% difference between Berkshire et al and Lincolnshire for example). It’s also not surprising to discover that the areas with high levels of non-internet use also seem to match up with areas of high unemployment.

The most recent statistics for unemployment provided by the ONS aren’t broken down in quite the same way as the figures for internet use, rather than counties they are broken down by region:

Region %age unemployed
North East 7.5
Wales 6.7
Yorkshire and Humber 6.6
West Midlands 6.4
London 6.2
Scotland 6
North West 5.7
East Midlands 4.9
East 4.4
South West 4.3
South East 4.2

Although it’s hard to draw substantive conclusions with data pulled from two distinct datasets, it does seem that areas of high unemployment coincide with areas where higher numbers of people have never been online. More investigation would need to be conducted to see exactly what proportion of those that have never used the internet in areas of high unemployment are unemployed (or in employment with limited job security – eg zero hours contracts). That said, it’s highly likely that those 1.4m people of working age that have never used the internet are in a particularly troublesome position. With an increasing demand to use the internet to seek employment, those 1.4m are clearly disadvantaged as they do not have the skills or access enjoyed by those that are online. Without a level playing field in terms of internet access, many of them will find it difficult to obtain secure long-term employment.

It’s also worth noting that within those areas of high unemployment and relatively high numbers of people that have never been online, public libraries provide an absolutely crucial service. By providing free internet access and trained members of staff that can provide the support required, they can make a huge difference in closing the digital divide for the 1.4m of working age that have never been online. Without a public library in which they can access the internet, it is difficult to see how those who are unemployed can get online and seek work. In the areas of high unemployment listed above, the public library will be a vital service in terms of getting individuals back into work. Any library closures in these areas will hit the unemployed particularly hard.

Unfortunately, with a mandate to further pursue a programme based on voodoo economics (ie “austerity”), it is hard to believe that libraries won’t be hit hard over the coming five years. However, you cannot both cut funding to statutory services (like public libraries) and expect to reach “full employment”, because those statutory services will be the mechanism by which people get into work because they do level the playing field, ensuring “opportunity for all”. As cuts to funding accelerate over the coming years, it seems fair to say that the consequence of the digital divide will be increasingly grim for the unemployed as support services are stripped right back, leading to increasing numbers of sanctions and, quite possibly, an ever growing demand for food banks. The consequences of the digital divide during a period of austerity are clear: precarious employment, poverty (in employment as well as for the unemployed) and a “recovery” that seems even further away than it did in 2010.

The future for libraries across Europe against a backdrop of ‘austerity’

The following article was originally commissioned by the Russian International Affairs Council (original version here, English version here), who have very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Image c/o Tristam Sparks on Flickr.

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell to their people the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a word where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Where, for example, those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) still have somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those that do. This provision is not only important to support children in their education but also the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where those least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies, they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards, and encourage children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries to children is perhaps best exemplified by the statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing as risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future for the library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by the local authority, policy makers are more interested in reducing costs and passing these costs directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It seems not far-fetched to say that volunteer libraries could, over the coming years, spread right across Europe and be seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that that opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak and there is likely to be only a small number of libraries fit for purpose across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries shift from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the internet has been in influencing the results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought over the internet, but the battle between political parties has increasingly sought to channel the power of the internet as politicians increasingly see the internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, there are other actors that influence the political information flow. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? and They Work For You have provided the tools to make it easier for those with an internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been. Provided you are connected to the internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who cannot either access or make use of the information and tools that are at our disposal. We know that despite many years of effort to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the internet will present additional problems. Issues around literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with good levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account, ensuring that the electorate are well informed and able to influence the political sphere. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe they can also help to ensure the people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. It may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Maybe the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring. A professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and one that advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes, they should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracies throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

What is the radical alternative to austerity?

I’ve just recently started reading David Graeber’s The Democracy Project. A History. A Crisis. A Movement, an interesting look at the Occupy movement by one of the leading figures involved in its emergence. Graeber explores the rise of the Occupy movement and explains why he felt it struck a chord with a broad cross-section of society in the fight against neo-liberal economic policy. Unlike many other protest movements, it drew support beyond the traditional middle/educated classes and tapped into something that other movements had failed to manage, despite the similarity in aims and objectives.

It’s an interesting read and has much to say about organising protest movements in the face of dramatic (and unnecessary) cuts. One section particularly stood out for me [pg. 27]:

“The main thing that stuck in my head about the talk about Bloombergville,” I volunteered, “was when the speaker was saying that the moderates were willing to accept some cuts, and the radicals rejected cuts entirely. I was just following along nodding my head, and suddenly I realized: wait a minute! What is this guy saying here? How did we get to a point where the radical position is to keep things exactly the way they are?”

“The Uncut protests and the twenty-odd student occupations in England that year had fallen into the same trap. They were militant enough, sure: students had trashed Tory headquarters and ambushed members of the royal family. But they weren’t radical. If anything the message was reactionary: stop the cuts! What, and go back to the lost paradise of 2009? Or even 1959, or 1979?”

Of course, this is entirely the case. The popular movement against cuts has not really been particularly radical. All it has done is called for a halt to cuts to public services, hardly a radical perspective. Since when has maintaining the status quo been a radical proposition? Indeed, when one considers the broader spectrum, maintaining public services at pre-2008 levels (or arguing against the cuts) is a relatively conservative (small ‘c’) position. The radical positions, it seems to me, are to argue for the cuts with increased deregulation of the private sector or to argue for increased spending coupled with a reversal of thirty years of deregulation.

That said, even the argument to increase investment isn’t really a radical notion. It certainly wouldn’t have been considered radical in the pre-Thatcherite era when Keynesian economics was the dominant force. Recent evidence certainly furthers the argument that the programme of austerity undertaken by the coalition is both unnecessary and damaging.

The programme of austerity owes some of its existence to a study published by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in 2010. The study concluded that “median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower.” In other words, countries with a debt to GDP ratio above 90% have a slightly negative average growth rate.

However, it has now emerged that the study was filled with errors as revealed in “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff,” by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As the Roosevelt Institute notes:

“[The authors] find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don’t get their controversial result.”

(You can read a further explanation of the flaws on the Roosevelt Institute blog.)

In essence, the premise behind the programmes of austerity around the world have been based on, as the Roosevelt Institute put it, “someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.”

Of course, most of the rhetoric around the need for austerity was deeply flawed even before the news that Reinhart and Rogoff’s conclusions were built on shaky foundations. Take the infamous, oft-repeated, national debt is the same as household debt claim. Leaving aside the idea that a household has the ability to print its own money (don’t try this at home!), the argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

When looking at household finances, is taking on more debt always a bad thing? Or are there circumstances where it is both justifiable and logical? Take, for example, someone in a job earning £20k. They don’t own a car and rely on public transport. They are offered a job paying £40k per year but the job is located further away and public transport is not feasible. They then decide that the best course of action is to take out a loan to buy a car, substantially increasing their debt. The car enables them to travel to their new job and double their annual salary. In the short term they have substantially increased their debt, however now they are earning twice as much, this debt will be cleared within a few years of earning a greater income. Once the debt is cleared, they are clearly in a much stronger financial situation. The debt is gone and they are now £20k better off per annum and their standard of living is sufficiently higher. So was the greater short-term debt burden worth it? The answer is obvious.

And I think this underlines part of the problem. Capitalist systems seem to lend themselves towards short-term measures. Instead of looking to the long term and building long-term stability and prosperity for future generations, it lends itself to short-term solutions that will yield immediate profits, until the next short-term plan is required. Of course, it doesn’t help that the political cycle also lends itself to short-term solutions, solutions that can be used to aid re-election without dealing with long-term effects.

It is certainly clear that the current strategy isn’t working. Borrowing has increased by £245bn more than was originally planned. Consider that for a moment. If £245bn had been pumped into the economy in 2010 to support infrastructure projects and build public services, would our economy still be suffering? Would such investment have sparked growth as money flowed into the economy, into people’s pockets and encouraged greater spending? Quite probably. And yet £245bn has been borrowed with no real purpose or plan. That is a catastrophe and a worrying sign of economic incompetence.

So I look at the current picture and I wonder, what is the radical position? For me the radical answer has got to be to increase spending and reverse deregulation of the private sector. For library campaigners it means the fight needs to be more than against closures and de-professionalisation. The argument needs to be about increased spending. It needs to be about investment in libraries. It needs to be about laying out a clear case for what libraries can offer communities if money is pumped into them rather than taken away. It’s about proposing what can be built rather than simply preventing their demolition. And not just libraries (before anyone thinks I am suggesting cuts to other services to enable spending on libraries – I pick libraries because that’s an area I am particularly focused on). All services should argue the casestrongly and persistently for investment. We should not accept that cuts and austerity are a necessity and must be accepted. We need to argue that the reverse is true: spending and investment are the answer.

This may be seen as naïve (who am I kidding, it will be seen as naïve), but the argument should be made and with great vigour. Rather than meekly accepting cuts as an inevitability and buying into the “greater debt is bad” argument, we need to take the battle to those arguing in favour of austerity. They are not expecting an assault on these terms but rather that the opposition will take the moderate halt (or slow) the cuts position. The position for increased investment should not be allowed to crumble when it is faced with the arguments used by the austerity drivers. Instead, the argument should be intensified, not abandoned. The longer people suffer as a result of austerity measures, the more they see wages stagnating and opportunities restricted, the more recovery seems a distant unobtainable fantasy, the more that alternatives will begin to appeal. The trick is to maintain the argument, consistently and coherently. It is this very trick that the right have used to convince people to accept policies that are counter to their own interests. The persistent drumbeat will build support in the long-term and pressurise those driving austerity. The longer we persist in arguing for greater spending, the louder our voices become and the greater support we can mobilise.

But then again, maybe I am just a naïve dreamer…

Do library occupations help campaigners, or the government?

Ok, straight off the bat I should say that I am by and large a supporter of both the Occupy movement and UK Uncut.  My politics, as if you didn’t already know, are to the left and broadly influenced by people such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.  I’ve got a relatively long history in blogging lefty political viewpoints and I am vehemently opposed to the current government’s policy of slashing the state under the guise of a supposed need for austerity (note, guise).

However, as a library campaigner and a qualified, professional librarian, I am more than a little concerned about the way these particular groups have handled the question of library closures.  So concerned, that I am prepared to write a blog post criticising a group of people I am broadly in agreement with (‘broadly’ is probably understating it) and, furthermore, to do so from the comfort of my own home whilst they are out there actually fighting the cuts.  Although I am uncomfortable with the situation I am about to put myself in, I feel that it needs to be said.

Whilst I have been fairly supportive of the occupation of libraries that have been closed, this support has been tinged with a sense of horror and concern.  Supportive because quite often these libraries are being closed against the wishes of the local population.  Often they have not been consulted and where they have, the options have been limited (invariably “run it yourself or we are closing it down” or “you find the money to run it, or we are closing it down” – localism in action…).  In this position, it would be hard to criticise anyone for occupying the library and delivering the service in defiance of the anti-democratic decision-making process at the heart of their local authority. But…

Those that are occupying these libraries are very often not librarians, or information professionals.  They are, in actual fact, untrained volunteers.  And herein lies the problem. With a backdrop of local authorities forcing local residents to run their local library service at their own cost (in effect paying twice as they have paid for the service through their taxes and now paying to maintain it), this is very dangerous.  Indeed, it rather plays all too conveniently into the hands of this government and its Big Society agenda.

Whilst those occupying libraries such as Friern Barnet are doing so out of protest and aiming to highlight the destruction of our library service, what is actually happening is that they are reinforcing the perception of the ruling elites, ie that anyone can run a library so let’s encourage local volunteers to do so.  Certainly, if those occupying the library have actually managed to increase visits to the library, as they claim, then this does not weaken the hand of the library cuts brigade, it strengthens it.  Ultimately, what is likely to be the end result of claims in the national media that the occupiers “have doubled the number of visitors“? Answer: more community libraries and more local people being blackmailed into providing a service they should expect from their local council.  This is an unsustainable model.  A model that even those running existing community library services have urged caution against.

It is highly damaging to see reporting in the national press that suggests that the protesters are equivalent to librarians:

Eight-strong group become ‘community librarians’ with locals’ support after law change forces them out of residential property.

The illegal tenants-cum-librarians attracted international media coverage…

…the squatters, who have acted as librarians…

The occupiers are not librarians, nor should they be seen as such.  Being described in this way does great damage not only to the profession (librarians are easily replaced with volunteers), but to local communities who will be expected to provide a service that their local authority will claim is equivalent to their existing, professionally delivered service.

Of course, this could be down to media reporting of the occupation.  I notice, for example, that the BBC more accurately describe the service as a “book-lending service in a library” (which is what it is, it isn’t a library).  But that does not detract from the fact that the strategy being deployed by the occupiers isn’t actually slowing the assault by both national and local government, but accelerating it.  When your protest is actually making the government’s case for them, then there is a very real, very serious problem.

Now, this post may be dismissed by those involved as someone seeking to undermine their protest for the benefit of the local council.  I can only assure them that my anti-austerity, left-wing credentials are clear and irrefutable (as anyone who knows me, or my blogging history, will testify).  My support for Occupy remains strong. I believe that their cause is just and essential.  It’s just, in this case, I fear that they are empowering the government’s agenda, rather than strengthening the case of library campaigners. Of course, I have been known to be wrong…I hope, in this case, I am.