New Digital-Divide Campaign Would Leave Seniors Behind

New Digital-Divide Campaign Would Leave Seniors Behind

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Photo: Courtesy of Senior Service America

WASHINGTON, D.C.– A major national campaign was launched last week to bridge the digital divide. Everyone On is the public service arm of Connect2Compete (C2C), a national public-private partnership that hopes to provide Internet access, digital literacy training and refurbished computers to low-income consumers.

The three-year, multimillion-dollar campaign, which C2C is doing with the Ad Council, sounds like a great idea, given how essential digital communications have become in how Americans live and work in the 21st century.

There’s just one problem—as an efficient way of providing low-cost broadband access and computers to many low-income families, C2C is targeting those whose children are eligible for the federal free and reduced-cost lunch programs. To qualify, a family must be in a low-income area and have a child on the lunch program.

That means low-income seniors, a highly vulnerable segment of the population, are being left behind.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was a driving force behind the launch of C2C. The commission recognized the need for a strong collaborative partnership with industry, the nonprofit sector and government to make sure everyone in this nation, regardless of age or income, is able to reap the benefits from access to affordable broadband networks.

Many Benefits for Elders

Other nations such as the United Kingdom have recognized this and, as a result, higher percentages of their citizens are connected and trained to make full use of the technology.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, online use by people age 65 or older jumped from 41 percent in 2010 to 54 percent in 2012.

That’s good news, but seniors remain far behind the 82 percent of all adult Internet users. EveryoneOn is essentially ignoring those who are the least connected digitally – seniors.

Digging a bit deeper, significant numbers of low-income seniors do not have computers or broadband access at home. Digital literacy, which is critical for meaningful use of the Internet, is least prevalent among seniors, especially those who are less educated, have lower incomes and are people of color.
The benefits for older adults are clear. For example, a 2009 report on Internet use and depression among seniors found that it can be a low-cost way to reduce depression by expanding elders’ social interactions, reduce their loneliness, and giving them access to health information and treatment.

As New America Media’s 2012 series “Ethnic Elders Online” showed, closing digital disparities can help older adults in positive ways, from greater involvement in their communities to starting a small business.

Moreover, like all nonusers, older adults often cite lack of relevance as a major reason for not using the Internet. Clearly, the United States needs some kind of intervention to help seniors get online, especially those with low income and limited education.

Digital Inclusion Initiative

While efforts like C2C essentially ignore this older segment of the population, organizations such as Senior Service America, Inc. (SSAI) recognize that older adults do not have to be stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

SSAI is one of several nonprofits that run the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), the only federally funded employment and training assistance program for low-income Americans who are 55 or older.

Because digital literacy is so important now to seniors’ income security and well being, SSAI launched its Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) in 2010. Through the program, SCSEP participants have helped more than 25,000 seniors understand how (and why) to use the Internet.

SSAI mobilized its network of SCSEP grantees to create nearly 350 community-based public sites that provide free computer coaching sessions for seniors. The learners utilize the self-paced Generations on Line computer tutorial application and receive one-on-one assistance from SCSEP participants who are trained Peer Coaches.

SSAI learned a great deal from the DII. The Peer Coaches reported that the biggest challenges were helping older learners get past their lack of confidence in the ability to use a computer and their “computer anxiety.” One-on-one coaching in a highly supportive group setting was essential to help allay these fears.

It is also significant that the senior learners gained more than computer skills. SSAI’s survey data show that seniors who completed the DII program reported improved morale and attitudes about life.
Especially striking were the attitudinal changes among the learners who initially were the most pessimistic.

Two examples: Of those who were initially the most pessimistic about “feeling useful,” two-thirds of had a more positive response at the end of their DII experience. Also, of the learners who were initially the most pessimistic about “my life has a sense of purpose,” 69 percent had a more positive response after their final coaching session.

‘Everyone On’ Should Mean All Ages

We’ve repeatedly found that older Americans defy expectations that they “can’t learn new tricks” by proving highly capable of learning to use the Internet and feel better when they do so.
SSAI and other organizations that work with and on behalf of older Americans are helping us understand ways to address broadband adoption challenges for our most vulnerable populations.
This is a win-win for everyone, yet such efforts for elders do not get the same attention and support as C2C. Why not?

There are straightforward ways to target the most disadvantaged elders. Just as C2C is using the subsidized school-lunch program for outreach to low-income families, they could reach millions of low-income seniors who already qualify for government rental housing subsidies, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and energy assistance programs—programs serving those of all ages.

Commendable as C2C’s Everyone On campaign is, we urge them to truly include everyone of any age.

Cecilia Garcia is the executive director of the Benton Foundation, and Bob Harootyan, is the research manager of Senior Service America, Inc.



Connect2Compete Campaign

Posted Mar 26 2013

Regarding the article, New Digital-Divide Campaign Would Leave Seniors Behind. I wanted to share some information that should help clarify the Connect2Compete campaign. I'd appreciate if your article was revised to reflect that the EveryoneOn awareness campaign, as well as the offers available through Connect2Compete are inclusive of ALL Americans, regardless of age, race, geography, income or education level. This is clearly stated throughout the Connect2Compete materials as well as the Connect2Compete website and the website.

As the name suggests, the EveryoneON campaign from Connect2Compete and the Ad Council is designed to communicate the value of the Internet for all Americans, from education to jobs to healthcare advances. Free digital literacy skills classes at more than 21,000 libraries and computer centers offered through EveryoneOn are open to everyone. For information on classes, seniors can call 1-855-EVRY1ON or visit

Though affordable Internet access programs from cable providers such as Comcast or Cox are currently limited to NSLP participants, Connect2Compete also has affordable Internet offers available from partners such as Freedom Pop wireless, which offers highly discounted hardware and free Internet access up to 1GB (for $9.99 users can receive up to 12GB) in 14,000 low-income zip codes nationwide.

Program partner GoodPC is also providing affordable computers - new and refurbished desktops and laptops for less than $200 in 14,000 low-income zip codes as well.
Thanks for your time and consideration in updating the article.

Jennifer Bemisderfer, Account Director
BRG Communications
Connect2Compete Campaign

Cecilia Garcia & Bob Harootyan

Posted Mar 26 2013

The authors reply:

We agree that digital literacy is becoming increasingly necessary to participate fully in our democratic society and economy. But to reach the estimated 24 million Americans 60 years and older who are not online, we urge the EveryoneOn campaign to pursue a targeted marketing strategy that creates messages specifically designed to reach and resonate with these older adults. We stand by our article.

Is it reasonable to expect that a one-size-fits-all strategy will connect with the 62 million low-income people who are offline or the 24 million seniors among them? We don't think so.

Less than five years ago, the nation conducted campaigns to reach older adults and other targeted groups to make sure that they weren't left behind when the nation transitioned from analog to digital TV. Today, another public-private campaign seeks to broaden the participation of girls and women in all fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Both efforts included specific outreach strategies to complement the larger campaigns for the public.

Good practice at the local level also calls for a targeted approach. For example, some public libraries offer classes and computer stations reserved for those older learners, who may need more time than younger patrons. Unfortunately, the current budget climate makes these examples exceptions rather than the rule.

If we are truly committed to bringing every American online, we need to develop a comprehensive strategy that fully takes into account the diversity of our neighbors who remain offline.

Cecilia Garcia, executive director, Benton Foundation, and Bob Harootyan, research manager, Senior Service America, Inc.

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