The App Gap[1]

At home and in the community, it has become almost impossible for people of modest means to apply for basic benefits.  

For many people with disabilities, advanced age, or who have been out of work, they need basic income security to survive.

Fifty years ago, there was no ‘online’ and the cost of applying for benefits was the cost of a postage stamp or a visit to an office. Fast forward to 2018 and we have moved to a supposedly more efficient and accessible online approach. In reality, online applications multiply barriers, rather than remove them. This “App Gap” speaks to the inequities that lie in these systems, and that prevent almost a quarter million Canadians on low-income from accessing resource they are eligible for.

This past December, Wellesley Institute screened the British film I, Daniel Blake, a film about 59 year old Daniel Blake (now available on Netflix). He has worked as a carpenter most of his life and now, for the first time ever, needs help from the State. Due to his poor health, which employment programs staff challenge, Daniel is caught in a web of bureaucracy that threatens to leave him without basic support.

Daniel Blake went to the office that administered his benefits with the mistaken belief that he could talk to decision makers about his situation (he could not), that someone would guide him through the application and appeals processes (they did not), and that he could solve the conflict whereby one bureaucracy claimed that he could work while another claimed that he could not (neither saw it as any of their business to resolve). He discovers that it is far easier for him to apply ‘from home’.

Neighbour (nicknamed ‘China’ in the film): “Check your National Insurance Number. Yep, that’s okay. Press that button right there, Bill Gates.”

Daniel: “What, this one here?”

Neighbour: “That one there: Send.”

Daniel: “Huh. It’s taken me bloody days to get this sorted out.

Neighbour: “Well done, son. Jobseeker’s Application done. … Right now I’m printing your appeal form for Employment and Support Allowance. But you can’t appeal till they carry out a mandatory reconsideration.”

Daniel: Is that printing out now? You mean they could have given it to me just like that?

Neighbour: Dan, they’ll fuck you around, I’m warning you. Make it as miserable as possible. No accident. That’s the plan. I know dozens who have just given up.”

 

–          Daniel Blake’s neighbor helps him apply for benefits from home.

                                                              From the British film “I Daniel Blake

Applying from home is easy: all you need is a lot of money you likely don’t have. Just $1,160 – only 2,830 times more than the cost of a stamp 50 years ago – to pay for:

  • a smartphone (with no data plan) at a minimum cost of $300 a year,
  • a second-hand computer for perhaps $300,
  • an internet plan at a minimum $500 a year ($40 a month),
  • a printer for $50, and
  • printer paper for $10.

Plus, of course, the knowledge to make it all work

For most low-income individuals, this is unrealistic. There is a literature that concerns the difficulties people have in accessing automated systems. The book Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks[2] illustrates this point.

Many people living on low income do not have appropriate housing[3]. They usually do not have a smartphone, do not have retail credit with which to purchase equipment, are often unbanked, seldom have a computer with internet access.  And if they do have a computer, they don’t have an up-to-date operating system that will allow them to download free software like Acrobat.   They most often do not have a printer and they do not have safe storage for their files and electronics.

Similarly, Daniel Blake finds that to apply from home, he needs help from someone who has a computer, internet, a printer, paper and the appropriate knowledge. That is his next-door neighbor, who becomes the “home option” for Daniel.

In Canada, there are places where one can attend to access the necessary equipment, such as libraries, drop-ins, community hubs, and ‘Out-of-the-cold’ programs[4]. These places all have online access, printers, computers, and telephones. But in many of them, operating systems are often dated or ancient[5]. The client is not permitted to download software and many computers cannot handle the latest Acrobat software, especially fillable forms. As well, many libraries and community hubs disallow printing or charge for printing, and many ‘public’ computers do not allow the applicant to save a document on their computers[6][7].

Most drop-ins and hubs place short limits on the lengths of telephone calls. This effectively means that calling Service Canada, Service Ontario, and the Canada Revenue Agency for assistance is not viable. Just getting through often exceeds the time limits in place.

Daniel Blake’s struggle to access benefits was set in Newcastle, England. But the situation in Canada’s is not so different.

[1] This blog is adapted from The App Gap, a PowerPoint presentation that illustrates why  poor people do not apply for benefits for which they are eligible:

http://openpolicyontario.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/The-app-gap1.pdf

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34964830-automating-inequality

[3] There are many examples of this evidence. See:

http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/right-home-report-consultation-human-rights-and-rental-housing-ontario/systemic-and-societal-human-rights-issues-housing

[4] A Toronto example: https://squareup.com/ca/townsquare/bridging-the-digital-divide-with-free-geek-toronto

[5] https://globalnews.ca/news/2413342/some-government-computers-still-using-windows-xp/

[6] https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/using-the-library/computer-services/scanners/

[7] https://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/using-the-library/computer-services/borrow-a-laptop/