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The Social Safety Net Now Includes Collective Connectivity

Once upon a time, we talked about retirement security as a three-legged stool of Social Security, pensions, and personal retirement savings. But, today, with fewer and fewer Americans having employer-sponsored pensions, it’s more like a rickety table supported by four legs. Social Security and personal savings remain (as aspirational as the latter may be), while skyrocketing health care costs have elevated the importance of Medicare to financial wellness as well as health. The new fourth “leg” – access to technology and digital literacy – has been thrown into the spotlight by the coronavirus pandemic.         

If you can’t easily navigate the internet, it’s difficult – and in some cases impossible – to get needed services or sign up for benefits. You have to go to the doctor’s office instead of scheduling a tele-visit. You can’t do a Zoom call to stay connected to friends and family. And, as we’ve seen in news reports and heard from AARP members across the country, you’ll have a hard time making an appointment to get the COVID vaccine, even though you’re among the most at risk. 

For decades, we have been living in a digital age that is now transforming into an era of collective connectivity. Like electricity and running water in the nineteenth century, high-speed internet has emerged as an essential resource around the world, especially during the global pandemic.

Unfortunately, what is considered a basic utility by many is still a privilege for others, resulting in damaging implications for the “disconnected.”  According to research by BroadbandNow, 42 million Americans didn’t have access to high-speed internet service in early 2020.  And, data collected by Microsoft indicates that almost half the country – more than 157 million people – go online at slower than “broadband” speeds, making it hard to stream video, connect more than one device, or reliably do other activities. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population – 14.5 million people – lack access to this service.

Looking just at older adults, 42% of Americans 65+ lack high-speed internet at home according to a January report from Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a nonprofit affiliate of AARP.  Even when the service is available, it is often an unaffordable luxury, especially the roughly 7.7 million seniors living at or below the poverty level.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the immediate need for universal access to technology and digital literacy. Since last spring, businesses and governments at all levels shifted to online delivery of information and services for good reasons, but with grave implications. What happened to those who didn’t have access to high-speed internet? Without a smart device or other internet connection, current and prospective recipients of much-needed benefits were in real danger of being left behind, their social safety nets instantly becoming less secure.

Consider the example of the New York City agency that administers food and rental assistance programs. With physical offices closed due to the pandemic, the city is leaning heavily on its website and a phone app to process applications. While there is certainly value in using up-to-date technology, relying on it as a primary pathway puts an added burden on the nearly 500,000 older New Yorkers who, according to the city’s comptroller, don’t have internet access.

Before making a service or benefit available online without other easily accessible options, it’s important to take a step back and test a few assumptions. To work effectively, people need to be aware of what’s available and the application process as well as the correct website address or app. They need to have the right devices and internet access, and they need to understand how to navigate the technology to successfully get to the website, download the app, and complete whatever online forms are required. And, the online system needs to work the way it’s supposed to – something that didn’t happen last spring in the New York City example, leaving frustrated residents struggling to get answers and much-needed help. 

It’s time to invest in the next phase of our digital age so we can replace the digital divide with collective connectivity and shore up a new leg of the retirement security “stool.”  That means making affordable, reliable high-speed internet available to all and putting a priority on digital literacy. A study from Pew Research Center found that a third of adults 65+ have little or no confidence in their ability to do things online, and close to three-quarters (73%) say they usually need help setting up and learning to use a new electronic device.

Fortunately, we are seeing public and private sector organizations embracing this challenge to combat the difficulties of the pandemic. Internet service providers in some communities are setting up public hotspots. State governments like Tennessee are funding expanded high-speed internet access.  And, AARP’s new partnership with OATS helps older Americans learn how to use different devices and navigate the digital world. We need to make sure that these initiatives expand and continue long after the pandemic is behind us. 

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