Using digital engagement to combat poverty

By Christine Gwyther, Lead Poverty Intervention Officer, Pembrokeshire Communities First

There are certain things many of us take for granted.  Being able to get the information we need and the entertainment we want at a moment’s notice has become second nature.  It empowers us as individuals.   But, increasingly, government and private sector services rely upon digital interaction as a first resort.  For anyone who does not have digital skills, this can leave them feeling powerless.

In Communities First, part of the Welsh Government’s anti poverty programme, we work with people who need help with various aspects of their life.  They may have chronic health issues which need to be managed or they may want to find out what sport and leisure activities are available to them.  They may be looking for work or they may need tips on how to maximise their income, stay out of debt or look for cheaper utilities.   All of these activities need a fair degree of digital literacy.

The Money Advice Service recently commissioned a UK wide survey which found that people in Wales (21%) are more comfortable seeking debt advice than the rest of the UK (15%).  But that situation is reversed for rural Wales (13%).  59% of people living in Wales are happy to bank online but in rural Wales that level drops to 52%.  Clearly connectivity is a problem and there is a lack of opportunity but also a reluctance to use online services in rural Wales. In places like Pembrokeshire that presents us with a real challenge when we are trying to increase digital engagement to combat poverty.

The predominant indicator of poverty, including child poverty, is income, and it is important that we treat with great caution any policy imperative which tries to downgrade or downplay that fact.  Our primary challenge is getting people into work – work with a decent rate of pay.  That is almost impossible, these days, without computers.  Having talent and practical experience is no longer enough for people seeking work.  They need to be able to look online for the best opportunities and also to prove to the Department for Work and Pensions that they are actively seeking work.

We are currently seeking partners to help us digitally upskill our Communities First cohort of job seekers and people ready to start their own businesses.  Understanding your own online persona is important.  That hilarious email address you adopted at school or college is no longer appropriate when you are applying for jobs.  Employers will also search social media to see what you do in your spare time.  They want to see who they will be working with day to day, and with that in mind we try to ensure our customers know how to present themselves virtually as well as in real life.

And whether in or out of work, income maximisation is key.  Looking after your money with confidence and building great habits for the future can be learned by anyone at any age.  Digital competency can be delivered by professionals and also by talented volunteers such as those in Digital Communities Wales.  We are looking to work with both to make a real difference to our customers and give them the confidence they need to manage their own learning and meet their own challenges in the future.

Government support for digital literacy will probably not be around forever.  If we have a finite window of opportunity to address the twin challenges of poverty and digital exclusion, then we need to work together and we need to make our interventions truly count.

The Wales Co-operative Centre has been working to address issues of digital exclusion in Wales for over 11 years now. Working with Welsh Government the Wales Co-operative Centre has delivered three major initiatives: Communities@One, Communities 2.0 and now Digital Communities Wales. The work has made a significant contribution to addressing the digital divide in Wales, but there is plenty more to be done, as more and more services and interactions are moving into an online space.

Ahead of Get Online Week 2016  (17 -23 October), the Wales Co-operative Centre has  invited a wide range of contributors to write a guest blog on Everyone’s Business blog site in an effort to highlight the on going need for organisations across Wales to work together to address issues of digital inclusion.

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