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Technology as a Basic Need: The Impact of the Access Gap in Poverty

Meghan Murphy

Marketing & Community, HandUp

Technology is often perceived as a luxury item, thought of in the context of the latest smartphone or slimmest laptop. But thinking about all technology as only a luxury is dangerous. Such a mindset masks the foundational elements of these items that are essential to everyday life: access to information and communications.

Even as technology becomes ubiquitous across the United States, what isn’t always universal is access to that technology. Barriers to access prevent people from escaping homelessness and moving out of poverty.

That’s true even in Silicon Valley, which is known for its vibrant entrepreneurial community and successful business ventures. The growing dichotomy of technological haves and have-nots is challenging us to really think: How does limited access to technology affect those who are unable to meet their basic needs?

If you’re in a homeless shelter, a cell phone is the one tool you have to seek resources and services that will help you get housed. If you’re a young kid living with a family under the poverty level, a home computer means you have the required tools to do your homework instead of rushing to finish during library hours.

Maybe you hit an unexpected rough patch, like Rodney, who after being laid off from his dance troupe found himself homeless in San Francisco. Once Rodney found short-term stable housing in a shelter, he joined HandUp to fundraise for the one item he could use to communicate with his family and find a new job: a laptop. Today Rodney is dancing with a new troupe in San Francisco and well on the path to stability—in part because he was able to access technology.

Access to Information

Last year in San Francisco, a local technology startup, Zendesk, partnered with St. Anthony’s Foundation to build Link-SF, a mobile-optimized website that pulls homelessness resource information in based on location. The most interesting part of this app? “Technology” is its own standalone category next to other basic needs like “Hygiene” and “Medical.”

LinkSFThat’s because, in today’s world, access to information is powered by technology. From local homelessness resources to Social Security benefits to city college courses, these types of services are in many cases only available online.

St. Anthony’s saw this as a growing barrier for the community they serve, and in 2008 established a technology lab in the Tenderloin District. The goal of the tech lab is to empower those in need to establish independence through the opportunity to get online, access information and learn new tech skills. For Dolores Gould, Manager of Corporate Relations at St. Anthony Foundation, there is no option for a life without technology:

“Imagine what your life would be without technology, not being able to conduct business, communicate with service providers, associates and family, without ready access to the internet for knowledge?” Gould says. “It is very clear that the Digital Divide gets larger every day.”

Many people experiencing homelessness or living in a shelter count on libraries and technology labs to access a computer. This makes one particular technology item particularly valuable for accessing information: the cell phone.

St. Anthony’s estimates that 45 percent of people coming through their tech lab have a cell phone. A 2011 study estimated that over 60 percent of homeless teen youths have a cell phone—and that number can only have gone up in the past four years. At HandUp, we see people who are barely meeting their basic needs each month choose to fundraise to keep their cell phone on.

In an interview with a local Washington, D.C resident Eric Sheptock, who is also currently homeless, he explains, “A homeless person can’t get by without having a cellphone. If they’re looking for a job and give the shelter number as their contact, the employer will call and realize this person is homeless. And after that, I’ve seen the job offer be rescinded.”

The importance of access to mobile technology has been getting notice at the federal level. Since 2008, people across the U.S. who are experiencing poverty can get a free phone with supporting voice minutes and text messages; it’s known as the “ObamaPhone” because the program expanded during his presidency.

Access to new technology skills

Step one is giving people access to technology. Step two is empowering those to be able to use that technology, and use it well.

“To make it in the world today, just to make it through school, you need these skills,” says Erika Kirsch, executive director of Compass Family Services.

Many people experiencing poverty may have never had the opportunity to learn these skills. For adults re-entering the workforce, upwards of 80 percent of jobs at Fortune 500 companies only offer online applications. Learning basic technology skills, like using email or building a resume in Microsoft Word, bring people experiencing homelessness one step closer toward a level playing field for jobs.

While reaching adults with education is important, we also need to focus on reaching the next generation while they are still young. A study looking at youth access to technology found that access to technology is a clear contributor to the knowledge divide for low-income youth, especially prominent during the summer. To solve the problem, providing access to computers isn’t enough; we have to teach them skills.

In San Francisco, we see Twitter taking the lead, backing a new technology lab in partnership with local nonprofit Compass Family Services. Called The Nest, it will focus on teaching these basic technology skills not just to adults, but also to families and their children. What’s really exciting is seeing a technology company invest in their community in a way that will have real long-term impact.

If more programs are able to combine both access and education, I believe we’ll find a clear model of success that proves technological empowerment is critical in breaking the cycle of poverty.

Where can we make a difference?

In the Bay Area, where technological innovation drives our industry, it seems obvious that this is where we can alleviate poverty through technological empowerment. We’ve got a solid start but there is a lot of work still left to do.

“There’s no stemming the tide of the function and popularity of technology-based living. The question is – ‘What can we do to include the forgotten, to contribute to a society that regards its whole self?’” says Julie Berlin, manager of St. Anthony’s Tech Lab. “Where technology can contribute to and not take away from the answer, this is where the compelling truth can be discovered about why and how technology is an essential not luxurious element of modern life.”

Meghan Murphy

Marketing & Community, HandUp

Meghan Murphy leads marketing and community efforts for HandUp. Previously she managed community marketing for Twilio and founded their Corporate Social Responsibility program.