In This Great Future, The Poor Are Still With Us

 SafeLink Saga
Over the last year or so, SafeLink Wireless has brought a new group of people to the library, perhaps the most poor and illiterate that I have seen since my rural bookmobile days.  SafeLink is a government-supported program offered by TracFone Wireless that provides a measure of telephone service to low-income heads-of-household.  A free cell phone is mailed to qualified applicants, and they receive a limited number of free minutes per month.  If they want more minutes, they can purchase additional time at a discounted rate from TracFone.

As people began to trickle in last year to apply for these SafeLink  phones, it became quickly apparent that it would be less trouble to fill out the simple online application for them than to give them a PC and try to coach them through it.  They couldn't read.  If someone can't read at all, you can't even begin to give them pointers on using a PC.  And to get the phone and basic, free service, they do not need an e-mail address, just a mailing address

Last week an older black woman came in with a friend, wanting to sign up for the TracFone plan offering additional minutes for a small monthly payment.  As we negotiated the registration to sign up for for the plan, I had to ask her for an e-mail address.  She bridled at this.  She had counted on being billed by mail, and paying with a printed check.  TracFone wanted an e-mail address and a credit card or bank account number.

It was a deal-breaker for her.  They hadn't said anything to her about e-mail and credit cards.  She seemed indignant at having to communicate with the company online, and she didn't want to give anyone her bank account number.  She didn't have a computer, she said, and she wasn't interested in coming to the library to use our public-access computers.  I gave her the toll-free SafeLink support number, and she left.

Facebook Refusenik
On Tuesday a white country woman asked me for help viewing her son's photo galleries online.  He had shown them to her when she visited him in North Carolina, where he is stationed at Fort Bragg.  They were on Facebook.  Did she have a Facebook account?  No.  She would need a Facebook account to see them.  To get one, she would need an e-mail address.  She didn't want to jump though that hoop, and that was the end of that.

E-mail is still the supreme app of them all, the sine qua non of digital life.  If you are a senior, perhaps retired, at any rate with a settled situation, I guess you still have the option of saying "No, thank you."  It is not that simple for those who need jobs as manual laborers, but who are simply unable to make the leap.

I can't forget the woman who, several years ago, wanted to get a job at Tallahassee Memorial as a cleaning lady.  It was easy to see that she had been a cleaning lady all her life, with her cotton dress, her support hose, and her sensible shoes.  They'd told her to apply online, and it was just wrong.  They might as well have told her to get a college degree.  She couldn't do it, and she was probably an excellent cleaning lady.

In a just society, employers with positions not requiring computer-literacy would have to allow people to apply for those jobs in person.


Steerforth said...

I quite agree. It's interesting how quickly an email account has become de rigeur. Businesses like the paperless society because they can employ fewer clerks.

We shouldn't disenfranchise people who can't or won't use the internet, particularly for jobs that don't requitr internet access.

Barbara said...

I also am a reference librarian in a public library. I have been ranting for several years that positions (i.e. school lunch lady, custodian, bus driver) that in no way require computer skills only take online applications. It is just a way to weed out older and poorer applicants. Heartbreaking.

Brett said...

Goodness, two comments from people I am not married to! Actually, I have had positive responses to this post in person as well.

Steerforth, thanks for looking in. I agree that it is mainly just more economical for companies to do away with paper applications and the workers who handle them. I have noticed a similar trend where companies no longer have call centers, only web-forms, for customer support.

Barbara, yes, it is a shame, and it is a problem for which public-access computing in libraries is not a solution. But perhaps it is you and I who need to rant in the right quarters about this. Could a case be made that it is a form of discrimination?

Barbara said...


My husband is an attorney and he to thinks that it is a case of discrimination and that a class-action suit could be in order (not his area of practice).

It is made even worse in libraries (mine for example) that don't allow internet access when patrons owe fines over a certain level (at my library the threshold is very low, $5.00). So, you don't have a computer at home, your card is blocked, you can't apply for jobs to pay your fines to get computer access. What a nightmare.

Barbara said...


In my library, your card had to be "in good standing" to use the computer lab, so if you owe us money, you can't apply for a job to make money to pay us back. However, our WI-FI is free, so if you have your own computer, you can surf to your heart's content.

My husband, who is an attorney thinks that there is a class action law suit to companies for insisting on computer applications; however, it is not his field of law.

With the down-turn in the economy, and the general low-income, high minority, high immigrant population my libary serves, use of the computer lab is high and going higher. Add in that the state of Kansas is not sending paper tax forms this year, forcing people to file taxes online (I am sure it is a cost saving issue for a state with huge money issues). Most of our population would recieve refunds, but have no idea how to use a computer to be able to file taxes online. We offer classes, have lists of sites providing tax help, but it is not enough.

Brett said...

My library has a long-standing commitment to free public access computing, dating back to the early '90's, when we partnered with Tallahassee Freenet to offer free dial-up access, UNIX shell accounts and e-mail, before the World Wide Web.

There are incentives for getting a card: cardholders can have multiple sessions and a degree of choice as to which PC they want, but anyone can have one hour-long session per day with a guest pass. Printing is free. Often-ignored signs ask users to limit printing to ten pages.

We always remind people that cards are free and more convenient, but my observation is that, for a variety of reasons, roughly one-third of our public access PC users are unwilling or unable to get library cards.

Public access PC use has actually declined in recent years, as more people acquire wireless devices like laptops and netbooks. You wouldn't know it from working the reference desk, though.