The digital divide – when even the beggars need smartphones

by Sarah Firisen

I was standing in Penn Station the other day waiting for a train and someone passed through begging for change. I’ve lived in New York City long enough that I don’t just start taking my wallet out and going through it in crowded public spaces, but beyond that, I don’t have change. I normally don’t carry cash. If I have cash on me its for one of two reasons, either someone has paid me back for something in cash (which in these days of Venmo is increasingly unlikely) or I have a hair or nail appointment where they like their tips in cash. So even if I have cash, it’s bigger bills and certainly no coins. And I’m sure I’m not unusual. I pay for things with credit cards. I pay other people using Apple Pay or Venmo. I mentioned this thought to someone who told me that they had seen someone begging in New York with details of their Venmo account. On the one hand, there seems to be a certain chutzpah to that, after all, if you have a bank account to receive the money in and some kind of smart phone to access it, is your situation as dire as you’re making out? On the other hand, it’s pretty smart. Of course, there are serious privacy issues involved in giving money to a random stranger through an app like Venmo, it’s not private, so I probably wouldn’t do that either, but it’s an interesting idea, if it could be made more anonymous and secure. Apparently, at least in China, the virtual beggar is a thing, “Even beggars have begun to accept wireless payments by offering QR codes…That’s mostly down to the proliferation of cheaper smartphones in China and the dominance of the WeChat and Alipay apps – which both support direct mobile payments.”

What this whole thing makes me think about though is that this is yet another way that modern digital life is exacerbating the divide between rich and poor.

Of course we’ve known this for a while; as middle class schools and student get increasing access to technology, poor, often minority students are left behind, “Although underrepresented minorities and women are increasingly entering engineering and related fields, they face barriers to doing so throughout the K-12 pipeline and into college. That can include a lack of funding and resources targeted specifically at minorities, fewer role models, and limited access to the necessary technology and instruction among low-income students at lower-resourced schools.”

And of course, it’s not just at school, “the most glaring inequity for low-income children is in their access to technology. Regardless of their school environment, low-income students have less access to technology than middle- or high-income students. According to data collected from the 2000 census, only 15 percent of homes where the annual income was between $20,000 and $25,000 (roughly the amount a family would earn if they lived in poverty) had a computer. Furthermore, of the 15 percent who had computers, well over half did not have access to broadband Internet.”

I remember when my children first started using USB drives in middle school to give and receive homework. The other day I offered my 16-year-old a spare USB drive I had, and she looked at me with disdain and said, “Why would I use that, all our homework is in the cloud?”. Which of course both assumes a computer at home and a good internet connection. And at her school, I’m sure that’s a reasonable assumption. So maybe schools that cater to low-income children don’t give out homework in the cloud, but then what are these children losing? Because, of course, even though my daughter doesn’t consider it, she’s not only doing her homework, she’s gaining valuable digital skills that are going to be necessary in college and the workplace. She’s a digital native and that’s something she’s able to take for granted. But as this article goes on to say, “What the lack of technology means for low-income students is that, in addition to trailing in academic achievement, they are missing out on opportunities to learn the technical skills they will need to succeed in a highly competitive global workforce. Having limited access to Internet-connected computers means that they don’t have time to tinker or explore. They don’t have time to practice basic skills like typing or writing emails, or more complex skills like researching or coding.”

So while there’s a lot of negative things that can be said about the “addiction” that kids like mine (and me, let’s be honest) have to our devices and digital lives, what can’t be denied is that digital literacy and competency are increasingly necessary skills in the workplace. In fact, just getting a job these days usually requires some kind of online presence and literacy. I volunteer with an organization, Refugee Employment Program, that helps refugees and asylum seekers to the US get jobs. And part of what we do is to help them create professional LinkedIn profiles and make good use of digital employment tools.

A New York times piece this week notes that not only is this digital invisibility prevalent and challenging for the poor and indigent, but they also often suffer from hypervisibility, “the poor often bear the burden of both ends of the spectrum of privacy harms; they are subjected to greater suspicion and monitoring when they apply for government benefits and live in heavily policed neighborhoods, but they can also lose out on education and job opportunities when their online profiles and employment histories aren’t visible (or curated) enough.” And beyond their increased likelihood of “legal” digital surveillance, they’re also more vulnerable to the effects of the wide range of cyber-threats that we all live with these days, “while societal fears about data breaches are widespread, identity theft poses a much heavier burden for people living on the margins.” And they may be even more at risk because many of them have such a dependency on mobile devices for internet access, “low-income Americans, and in particular, foreign-born Hispanic adults, are disproportionately reliant on mobile devices as their primary source of internet access. While internet connectivity has become essential to these communities, it also creates privacy and security vulnerabilities that they don’t feel prepared to navigate. The survey findings illustrate a substantial demand for educational resources among low-socioeconomic-status groups, but many feel as though it would be difficult to get access to the tools and strategies they would need to learn more about protecting their personal information online.”

The industrial revolution and the surrounding political and societal changes resulted in all children in Britain getting an education. As agricultural and jobs in manufacturing, such as working in the cotton mills disappeared, they were replaced by better, safer, less manual higher paying jobs that overall raised the standard of living that those children were now educated for. Will this next revolution, this digital, automation revolution have a similarly overall positive outcome? It certainly could. But just as something needed to happen in Britain in the 19th century, education had to become free and mandatory for all children, do we as a society have to do more to make sure that our already too wide gap between rich and poor isn’t further exacerbated by the technology that is an increasingly necessary part of most aspects of our lives?