The Digital Divide Pushed My Dad’s Life to the Brink
At the start of the pandemic, my 67-year-old father lost his job as a Chicago taxi driver after more than 20 years. He joined the ranks of the unemployed and could no longer cover his rent. He qualified for unemployment benefits and rental relief, but technological hurdles stopped him from getting the help he urgently needed. Without a computer or easy internet access, he relied on his iPhone, which he often fumbled over. As his millennial daughter, I served as his personal tech support agent as much as I could.
My father lives alone an hour away from me; as much as I’ve tried to intervene, some things have still fallen through the cracks. I feared that his health and financial problems would worsen. Chicago’s citywide lockdown dried up demand for taxis, forcing him to give up his medallion, which was worth about $25,000. With everyone sheltering in place indefinitely, he couldn’t afford to pay roughly $800 per month for the medallion fee, maintenance fees, and insurance. This turn of events put me on edge; he had just lost his only source of income. Would he lose his home next?
“Can you please send an email on my behalf to the Chicago Housing Authority?” he asked me over the phone one day. My father was trying to access rental relief assistance, but since he didn’t have a computer, he couldn’t apply online. I agreed to help him sort it out. He wrote out a message by hand and dictated it to me over the phone. Then he texted me a photo of the message to ensure accuracy. I emailed it to the Chicago Housing Authority address that he sent me, but it bounced back. After I told him that the address was incorrect, I searched the housing website to get the proper address. For months, we battled through this bureaucratic morass.
With the passage of the recent American Rescue Plan, increased housing assistance and other benefits are on the way. However, it is unclear whether that funding will reach those who are most vulnerable, including the elderly—especially if they lack access to technology.
The digital divide has made millions of senior citizens like my father unable to receive critical aid. Nearly 22 million American seniors don’t have broadband internet at home, according to a report by Older Adults Technology Services, a seniors advocacy nonprofit. Roughly 29 percent of low-income Americans don’t have a smartphone, impeding their access to benefits, according to the Pew Research Center. The National Council on Aging found that many who qualify for SNAP benefits do not apply. About 3 out of 5 eligible seniors are missing out on benefits—around five million people. In addition, the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation (PAHRC) estimates that 3.6 million additional seniors likely qualify for rental assistance but do not receive it.
For many seniors, having internet access is not enough. Jo Anne Muhammad, a 68-year-old woman from Southeast Michigan, says that ever since applications for benefits migrated online, she has struggled. She has Wi-Fi on her phone, but finds the process frustrating.
“I don’t like using this little phone,” she said. “Sometimes you lose your page, then you have to go back and then you have to start all over because it just is not saved.”
For years, she has successfully submitted paper applications for food stamps and Medicare on her own. But now, she worries that tech challenges will hamper recertification. The loss of this safety net would be devastating.
“I don’t own a computer, so I have to call a caseworker,” Muhammad said. She has been waiting over a week for her call to be returned.
In addition to her current benefits, Muhammad also needs help paying her utility bills and her $650-per-month rent, as she is three months behind. She recently learned about CERA, a program that helps with rental assistance in the pandemic, but she hasn’t been able to access it because it also requires using a computer. While she gets some funding through Social Security and a pension, it’s not always enough. “My son said he’ll come over with his tablet,” she said, sounding hopeful that he will sort everything out.
Not every senior citizen has tech-savvy children. Abdi Yusuf, 67, has struggled on his own to obtain benefits, and his limited English has caused additional stress. Yusuf emigrated from Somalia to the United States in 1997, and currently lives near San Diego. He worked as a security officer prior to the pandemic, until health issues forced him to step away. His monthly income fell to $700. He needed financial assistance with housing, food, and utilities, all benefits he qualifies for as a U.S. citizen. But without proficient computer skills or fluent English, he couldn’t find his way into the process. Eventually, friends told Yusuf about Somali Family Service (SFS), a nonprofit social service organization; the group assigned him a social worker who helped him complete paperwork for food stamps.
He still needs financial help to cover utilities and rent. “Unfortunately, a lot of people, especially those with language barriers, are not aware that these programs are available,” Yusuf explained through a translator. He added that he is grateful for guidance from friends and SFS, but wants to see more proactive efforts to close the digital divide.
For Yusef, that starts with “just really taking the time to go to people (and) listen to their stories and struggles.” Only by understanding the communities left behind will decision-makers learn how to improve access to public benefits so they may reach the people for whom they are intended, he said.
As the digital divide exacerbates inequities among the elderly, immigrants, and communities of color, nonprofits try to bridge the gap where possible. But the root problem of obstructed access persists. Increased SNAP and unemployment benefits continue to bypass the very communities that need them, said Ammar Ahmed, public relations coordinator at ICNA Relief, a nonprofit providing assistance to underserved people.
Some of Ahmed’s clients in New York state have encountered “a cumbersome unemployment website that initially kept crashing,” he said. “In some instances, it was easier to go in person to the unemployment office and wait in line to schedule an appointment in order to come back another day to complete the application.” It’s time-consuming—and a risky in-person move for COVID-vulnerable seniors—but for many, it’s their only option for obtaining benefits.
It took my father six months to get the assistance he needed. I am happy that I was able to play a role, however minor it may have been, to expedite the process. But it should not have been so difficult. It’s devastating to know that millions of senior citizens who rightfully qualify for public benefits are suffering without them.
Tasmiha Khan writes about issues that impact families as a result of policies, and her work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair, among others.
Co-published with The American Prospect.