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.