A spotlight on digital poverty

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Digital transformations aren’t just leaving people behind. In some cases, they’re making life harder.

Clients’ issues are being further complicated by digital obstacles. This digital divide became apparent during Covid-19 lockdowns.

We want to raise awareness about the effect of Digital Poverty for residents and organisations like ours.

We’re encouraging organisations that are undertaking digital transformations to:

  • Do risk assessments that consider wider impacts of digital transformations.
  • Design their digital transformations to include in-person support, because people in Digital Poverty often need in-person support.
  • Ensure that people in Digital Poverty aren’t penalised for not being able to access digital services.

What is Digital Poverty?

We’ve identified Digital Poverty as the exclusion of people from joining in digital aspects of life and society due to a lack of finance, skills and/or connectivity.

The situation for our clients

Over 100 of our most vulnerable clients disengaged when lockdowns closed our in-person service in March 2020. We were worried about how some clients would get help without having phones or internet connections.

October 2021 brought more hardship for people on Universal Credit as £20 per week was taken away from their benefits. After essential items like rent, food and utilities, this leaves about £31 a month for someone under 25.

Previously, they would have had roughly £117 a month. Now, £31 must pay for any debts, a mobile phone, broadband, a TV licence and clothing.

This puts people on the edge of perpetual debt.

The Digital Divide

In 2021, 2million households (7% nationally) had problems affording broadband and/or smartphone costs. In 2020, only 47% of low incomes UK homes had broadband. Despite home internet connections rising by 3% in 2020, 5% of UK adults did not use the internet for a 3month period, while some never used it.

The pandemic has pushed the UK to achieve 7year’s worth of digital innovation in just a few months. However, in December 2020, only 4.7% of broadband connections were fibre and only 18% of households have full fibre.

There is a suggestion that our digital infrastructure is lagging behind our digital innovations. Therefore, many people can’t access the digital services they need. This is made worse by a possible future digital skills shortage. 40% fewer GCSE students taking IT subjects since 2015 means digital support workers may be scarce in the future.

Who suffers from Digital Poverty

Surveys reveal that people who lack access to the internet fall into certain groups. These groups include people who:

  • Are unemployed.
  • Are older.
  • Have a disability.
  • Have lower educational achievements.
  • Live in social housing or deprived areas.
  • Are in social groups C2, D or E.


We believe that anyone can experience digital poverty if they lack finance, skills or connectivity.

What are the effects of Digital Poverty?

According to the Centre for Economic Business Research (CEBR), people who suffer from Digital Poverty may experience the following:

  • Salary increases – Missing out on increased earning of 3% – 10% with digital skills jobs.
  • Employment opportunities – Reduced likelihood of gaining employment or even being able to look for employment.
  • Online discounts – 13% higher costs of shopping on the high street compared to shopping online.
  • Isolation – Increased loneliness due to less communication with family, friends and the community.
  • Time – 30min longer for each in-person transaction with banks and government services than using online services.

How does a lack of finance contribute to Digital Poverty?

Missing out on the advantages of digital options can lead to a higher cost of living and entrenched debt.

Businesses and organisations that try to nudge customers onto digital platforms may accelerate these problems.

When a person’s only option is an online platform, they have to buy the device or connection to access it. So the cost of service is moved onto them. Similarly, if they can’t afford those costs, they might ask Citizens Advice for help in accessing it.

In this way, businesses are paying less by shifting staffing costs onto other organisations and their consumers. So, some digital transformations might be viewed as digital offsetting rather than creating efficiencies.

The cost of a lack of connectivity

Not being able to get a wifi or mobile phone signal is a frustration that many people have experienced. However, for some of our clients, a lack of connectivity makes life exceedingly difficult.

Example 1

During lockdowns, there have been multiple instances of residents home-schooling children using just a mobile phone. Often, the connections are poor and the lack of a broadband option means clients have to use their mobile data.

Downloading teaching materials greatly increases their mobile phone bills.

One client was using this method to try and home-school her three children. She was on Universal Credit, with rent and council tax deductions and had considerable debt. She could only get mobile signal from a window sill on the top floor of her home.

We managed to help the client by getting her a Debt Relief Order using a three-way conversation over speakerphone. Our adviser was on speakerphone, a housing officer sat in the garden and the client held her phone by the window.

Example 2

A client on a zero-hours contract was effectively made redundant during lockdowns by her night shifts being taken away. She had considerable debt, including rent arrears, and had no phone or broadband. She was alone and waiting to be evicted from her home.

Thankfully, a neighbour found out and got in touch with us and we liaised with the client via the neighbour. We managed to help her despite the lack of a digital connection and thanks to the intervention of a person.

A lack of connection and the risk of abuse

Missing out on online discounts and job opportunities, and spending more time and money on offline services is bad. However, lockdowns exposed a more sinister aspect of lacking connectivity.

Isolation meant that there was an increased risk of abuse for vulnerable people. Between April and July 2020, there was a 65% increase in domestic abuse helpline calls. Online consumer fraud also increased by 42%, spike during lockdowns. This was due to more online purchases and fewer in-person opportunities to verify who you were giving money to.

Example 3

We discovered a client who was in an abusive relationship. Her partner controlled her finances and didn’t allow her a mobile phone. A nurse providing cancer treatment to the client’s son referred her to us via Wiltshire Citizens Advice.

Again, it took a human intervention to overcome the effects of digital poverty.

What are basic digital skills?

In 2015, the CEBR identified 5 key areas that signify basic digital skills.

  1. Managing information – Being able to use search engines and comparison sites and store data online.
  2. Communicating – Being able to use emails, social media and video calls.
  3. Transactions – Having the ability to manage a bank or Universal Credit account or to shop online.
  4. Problem-solving – Using online tutorials to self-train.
  5. Creating – Being able to develop content for social media or online communities.

Not having these skills or just lacking some of them can have serious consequences.

People with low digital skills could:

  • Miss out on cheap online products.
  • Not be able to access higher-paying digital skills jobs.
  • Incurring extra non-digital costs.
Those with digital skills are able to take advantage of many online opportunities.

Example 4

A client with a disability came to us after getting into debt due to parking fines. She lacked the confidence and digital skills required to get a blue badge that would give her disabled parking access. This was also a problem when it came to challenging parking fines online.

She’d incurred these fines while driving a disabled friend to various destinations. With no money to pay the fines and no skills to challenge them online, the fines increased in size. Eventually, she was threatened with bailiffs coming to take away her possessions.

Our charity’s advisers are negotiating to see if we can stop the bailiffs from taking away her possessions.


  • Digital offset – Digital transformations can push staffing costs onto other organisations and digital product costs onto citizens accessing online services.
  • Digital isolation – The risk of vulnerable people being exposed to abuse may be increased by Digital Poverty. This is because isolation may lead to people taking advantage of them when they don’t have in-person support.
  • Weak digital infrastructure – Digital innovations and transformations are outpacing people’s ability to access these digital services.
  • Anyone can suffer from Digital Poverty. We can’t just focus on specific groups. We should consider aspects of everyone’s digital finance, skills and connectivity.

How do we address these concerns?

The government’s 2017 digital strategy suggests pushing for greater digital adoption. This is evident from plans to:

However, our research shows that when digital solutions fail, people use other more expensive options. For example, using mobile data to home school children or seeking out support from other organisations like Citizens Advice. So how can we prevent this?

We suggest:

  • Risk assessments – Conduct in-depth risk assessments before making digital transformations. These should consider wider impacts for individuals and other organisations, include varied aspects of Connectivity, Skills and Finance gaps. They should also recognise that anyone might suffer from Digital Poverty.
  • In-person support – Design digital transformations with ‘in-person’ support to shrink the digital divide, helping people access online services. This may reduce the need for other organisations to access digital services on behalf of the digitally impoverished.
  • Prevent offset – Ensure that people aren’t penalised when their digital poverty stops them from easily accessing digital services.

Get in contact if you’d like to support our efforts to overcome the consequences of Digital Poverty.

18 October 2021
Last Updated
9 December 2021