“I don’t mean to alarm you,” my friend said just before I visited her home in the hills of rural, Southeastern Ohio, “but there’s no bathroom out here. There’s no running water.”
And the driveway, she said, was a rutted, steep rise of dirt, holes, and gravel—a quarter-mile long. “The first test,” as she put it.
When my 15-year-old Honda and I actually made it to the top, she came out in front of her house and waved at me, impressed. She lived in a converted garage with piles of empty cans and tools in the yard, a chimney trembling with wood smoke.
“A lot of people,” she said, “just turn back.”
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Rural poverty seems like something out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book—something quaint and distant. Something over. But many of my neighbors and family members in Appalachia grew up—or their parents grew up—in homes without running water or indoor plumbing. That kind of living is not a relic from the past. It’s the life of many people today, some of whom I know and love.
I stopped assuming my friends would have driveways. Many of them are homesteading in the deep, ridged woods, or squatting in trailers in fields, or just getting by in overcrowded farmhouses. I stopped assuming they would have bathrooms, trash pickup, or even electricity. Not everyone I know has power—either because the bill hasn’t been paid or the house was never on the grid to begin with; wires never reached that far.
And not everyone has the internet.
Not everyone has high-speed or wireless. Not everyone has a computer, or a smart phone. Or a phone phone. The assumption of basic technology, even in the digital age, is just that: an assumption.
I’m fortunate to have internet at home (usually, when I can pay the bill), but living alone with a 5-year-old child means I don’t get to my freelance work at my computer until late at night, after he’s asleep and I’m exhausted.
Until recently, in order to email a W2—which I have to do regularly, to get paid—I had to drive 20 minutes into town to an office store, pay for parking, and pay a few bucks to print out the pages.
Then a friend gave me her old printer so I can print at home. But I still have to drive across town to the library, which has a free scanner I can use to scan my W2s—and that’s not a process my son will wait patiently through. So I have to pay for a babysitter, and again pay for parking. The privilege of getting paid for my work costs me about $30 in all, and takes up several hours of limited, much-needed, child-free time.
Most people know about the practice of punishing those who are poor with further financial burdens: deposits for utilities, fees on check-cashing and bank accounts, payday loans. All of this is a kind of a poverty tax—it marks you as undesirable and it helps keep you poor.
But there’s a lesser known poverty tax on technology, and it’s paid with your time.
It takes a lot more time and ingenuity to access technology when you’re poor. It takes calling in favors from friends. It takes being at the mercy of parking and babysitters and business hours and irregular internet access at coffee shops and restaurants.
It takes shelling out a few bucks you don’t have for coffee or food for the privilege of sitting at a business with wireless. It takes feeling incredibly nervous that you’ve been there too long, that they’re going to kick you out or make you buy something else, or that the manager at Wendy’s is going to call the cops because you’ve been sitting in the parking lot for hours—as I have done—trying to use their internet for work.
Politicians talk about providing internet to rural, impoverished communities in grand, noble terms. But the reality is simple and harsh: We need the internet to access help.
I need the internet to get help for child support. I need the internet to search for work and apply for more jobs. Once my child starts school, he will need the internet for homework—a common struggle in my community, since children are required to do hours of homework online every night even though over 300 households in my county don’t have any internet access. Public libraries close a few hours after school lets out, and due to budget cuts, they are not open much on the weekend.
Most services for the poor are online. Job ads are online. Housing information is online. Information about food pantries, seed distribution, free meals, parenting classes, job fairs, shelters, health clinics, and free activities to do with children are online. Even accessing my bank account—to make sure I’m not overdrawn, to make sure I’m not racking up a low balance fee—needs to be done online. Every time I ask for a copy of my statement at the bank, I’m told: “Do you know you can do this online?”
Yes, I know. Do you know that not everyone has that luxury?
Stop assuming that everyone has the same technology, the same new phone, the same fast laptop.
Maybe if you realize that, you will stop assuming everyone has other basics: like a hot shower, like a stove to cook a meal, like a fridge to store fruits and vegetables, like dental care, like money for much-needed medications.
What are taken as givens, including technology, are actually extravagances for many people. When you’re poor, applying for a job online, or finding a doctor, or simply answering an email, often takes extra money, time, and luck that you don’t have.
That steep, rocky climb I had to make to reach my friend’s house? I climb it, in so many ways, every day.