“Freebies.” “Freeloaders.” Welfare queens.”
These are the words that get thrown around when people start talking about a city that takes care of its residents. They are all different words and have different meanings but they all signify basically the same thing: racialized poverty. We all know how the words are used in context. For instance, a few days ago Kerry Dougherty wrote another article in the Virginian Pilot (a local newspaper) skewering Norfolk’s decision to put free Wi-Fi in the Park Place neighborhood. She said, “The justification for Norfolk’s free Wi-Fi program is the same one that’s often trotted out when bureaucrats spend other people’s money on freebies: It’s for the children!”
Wow. “Freebies.” For children. The monsters.
Part of her argument is that this free Wi-Fi is not just for homes with children. It will be available to everyone in the neighborhood. Go call your girlfriend because you can now Netflix-and-chill on the city’s dime! And why would tax payers ever want to give “free” internet for people who are just going to abuse it by binge watching HGTV? The nerve.
Before my sarcasm goes any further, it would probably be a good idea to point out some data and research to the would-be Kerry Dougherty’s of the world who just can’t stand those freeloaders who have fun at the expense of tax payers. A recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that 91% of families below the poverty line have some form of access to the internet. Great! However, the problem here is that these families, 56% of them who are below the median income level, tend to be underconnected. I know what you’re thinking. Why should having access to the internet at your home be provided by the city? Let alone good access to the internet? Well, here’s why. When families only have access to the internet through their phones, they run into lots of problems. 1/3 of these families hit their data limit on their plans, 1/4 have had their phones disconnected, and 1/5 say they have to share the phone with other family members, leaving them with not enough time to to complete what they need.
But what do they actually need? Why is having full and equal access to the internet no longer something that is a luxury but is now a necessity? Many jobs are advertised on the internet and require your application to be submitted digitally. Without easy access to the internet, many well paying jobs are out of reach for those in poverty. Many school extracurriculars, programs, and lottery schools are advertised online with the applications also required to be submitted digitally. Parents in poverty who work 2 sometimes 3 jobs do not have easy access to libraries for the internet use simply because their schedule does not leave time. They should have access to the internet 24 hours a day to have time to research jobs for themselves and educational programs for their children. Even simple daily internet use such as looking up recipes, nutritional advice, finding coupons, researching prices for shopping needs, and staying connected with and creating a social network of friends and colleagues are difficult to achieve without easy, daily access to the internet.
There are also problems with many of the programs that offer reduced price internet to low income houses. This includes Cox Communication’s program Connect2Compete. Many of these programs only offer internet through ethernet connections that limit how many people in a home can be on the internet at once. Many of these programs also require that a home has not had an internet connection for at least 6 months. That’s almost an entire school year.
Not to mention, having access to the internet gives access to knowledge and power. Every person should have access to information on political candidates, cultural trends, skills, and activities. There should be equal access to information to all people because information is power and right now, that power is very unequal and top heavy. This is why it is not a “freebie.” It is a resource, just as a library is a resource that shares information, knowledge, and power. Many may not like this, but libraries are no longer power houses of information. The internet is. It is the most up-to-date and easily accessible source of information and the chasm between who has access to it and who does not needs to be closed.
I would like to suggest to Kerry Dougherty that no, this program is not just for children. It is for all of the residents of Park Place who are underconnected and who do not have easy access to information, knowledge and power. They are kept from jobs, education opportunities, and Grace and Frankie. And, come on. Why do people who argue against so called “Welfare Queens” who are always getting those “Freebies” from the government always jump to people who might take advantage of these programs? So what if they do stream movies? So what if they use it for something else other than what you think is a suitable use of your tax money? Er, sorry. It’s not Kerry’s tax money. She lives in Virginia Beach. Being a person who sees inequality and addressing it with city wide programs that help to level the playing field is just the right thing to do. Because arguing otherwise actually does make you look like you’re “not caring about poor kids. Or worse, wanting to keep them disadvantaged.” (Her words, not mine.) Do the right thing, Kerry. Stop arguing that we keep people disadvantaged. It isn’t nice.