Imagine someone proposing a government policy that limited the ability of almost 36 million U.S. households to access government benefits and services.
Now imagine if the households affected by this policy were the ones most in need of the benefits and services.
While I don’t believe the government is proposing to purposefully limit access to its services, government policies are being implemented doing just that.
Policies that phase out or eliminate paper-based options for government services in favor of digital-only access are leaving tens of millions Americans behind. This “rush to digitize” simply doesn’t work. Citizens need more than one option to access government information and services.
While news and entertainment are dominated by digital, not everyone is online. The number of Americans without regular access to the Internet is staggering.
Nearly 36 million American households do not have Internet access at home.
Almost 19 million senior citizens don’t own a computer.
These are enormous numbers of Americans for whom digital-only access to government services and information is a huge barrier. Yet these figures don’t even tell the full story of the impact of digital-only access. If you dig deeper, the figures show that those most impacted by digital-only options are those most in need of government services.
Four out of 10 American adults who have not graduated from high school are offline.
One in five rural residents is also offline.
A quarter of Americans earning less than $30,000 per year are offline too.
For these Americans, anything that requires digital access to register for information is out of reach.
Another unintended but very real consequence of the “rush to digitize” is the cost. Identity theft targeting online government transactions is costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. In just one example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that identity theft due to electronic filing of tax returns had exploded by 480 percent since 2008. In one year alone – 2010 – GAO estimated the fraudulent tax returns to have cost $5.2 billion.
Digital access to government services and benefits can be an effective tool, and people should have the choice to use it. But policies that totally eliminate paper options eliminate that choice.
Fortunately, there are bipartisan efforts underway on Capitol Hill to ensure that millions of Americans aren’t totally left on the wrong side of a digital divide between them and their government.
Earlier this year and at the request of Congress, the Social Security Administration agreed to resume periodic mailing of earnings statements to workers.
Reps. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) and Mike Michaud (D-Maine) have co-sponsored House Resolution 97 that calls on federal agencies to ensure taxpayers have the option to receive important information and communications in a paper format. This bill would be an important step in securing the right to choose between paper and digital for all Americans.
Another bill – House Resolution 3385 by Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) – would preserve the Treasury Department’s Tax-Time Savings Bond program, retaining the option to choose between paper and electronic savings bonds. This would give comfort to those bond buyers who don’t want to risk losing any record of their investment. And in July, the GAO also agreed – at the urging of Reps. Ribble (R-Wis.), Michaud (D-Maine), and Cartwright (D-Pa.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R- Maine) – to review how a lack of paper savings bond availability affects low-to-middle income individuals.
Americans deserve unfettered access to government information, services and benefits. Firmly establishing their right to choose between paper and digital formats is critical to maintaining that access. Millions of Americans still depend on that choice.