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Federal Efforts to Go Paperless Ignore Seniors’ Needs and Digital Divide | Commentary

It’s difficult for many of us to imagine a world without the benefits of technology. As mobile providers revolutionize our daily lives with each new gadget and companies tout the simplicity of e-commerce and social networking, it’s all too easy to forget that this technology is simply not accessible for millions of Americans, especially seniors.

The transformative power of technology is real, but so is the digital divide.

Across the country, more than 25 percent of Americans lack Internet access, and seniors are especially likely to be without technology. More than 50 percent of Americans over age 65 lack Internet access, while nearly half of them do not even own a computer.

Seniors make up the lion’s share of the more than 30 million households — a quarter of our population — that are being left behind while the rest of America goes online. While great strides are being made to deliver technology to more Americans, we are not there yet.

Yet despite this deep digital divide, government agencies are increasingly choosing to eliminate traditional access to paper-based services and information — leaving millions of Americans, especially seniors, behind.

Federal agencies, from the Treasury to the Social Security Administration, are now forcing Americans — even those who lack Internet and even computer access — to go online to interact with their government. And many of these decisions to go paperless primarily affect seniors, who are nearly twice as likely to be without Internet access.

The Treasury, for example, ambitiously set a March 2013 deadline to completely phase out paper federal benefits checks. For two years leading up to the deadline, the agency demanded that Social Security beneficiaries either switch to direct deposit or opt into electronic debit cards, which carry steep fees. The March deadline came and went, however, with 5 million beneficiaries — mostly elderly Americans — refusing to give up paper checks.

Many of these seniors and other federal beneficiaries are uncomfortable with electronic debit cards or the direct-deposit process, or simply do not have a bank account. Others have concerns about privacy and growing cybersecurity threats. They are not ready or equipped for digital banking or online interaction, and our government should not force them.

Benefits checks aren’t the only paper-based services being eradicated. The Social Security Administration has also eliminated the mailing of annual earnings statements, which offered all workers ages 25-60 a chance to double-check the government’s math and plan for retirement. Now these statements are only accessible online, meaning that low-income earners who most need these earnings statements are unlikely to ever get a copy.

The Treasury also phased out paper savings bonds, turning an important American tradition into just another click of the mouse. The move also makes it difficult for seniors, who were once the primary buyers of savings bonds, to purchase them.

Although the government’s rush to go paperless clearly penalizes seniors and other Americans without access to technology, the general public also disagrees with these actions.

According to a new national poll by the advocacy group Consumers for Paper Options, 73 percent of American adults believe it is wrong to expect Americans to interact with government agencies online.

Additionally, 85 percent said federal decisions to restrict paper-based services should be overseen by Congress. Right now, these decisions are made behind closed doors — often without congressional oversight or public comment.

These survey respondents — all of whom have Internet access — also recognized the negative consequences for seniors and others caught in the digital divide. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said the government’s shift to paperless services disadvantages elderly, disabled, low-income and poorly educated Americans.

The government’s rush to go paperless is disenfranchising millions of seniors and other vulnerable Americans and making the digital divide even deeper.

The push to make these changes while millions of seniors remain uncomfortable with technology — and even more cannot even access it — should stop. Government agencies shouldn’t be rushing to make these changes, and Congress should have proper oversight of such significant shifts in policy that negatively affect our seniors and all Americans.

We call on our fellow members of Congress to help us ensure that federal agencies embrace the benefits of a digital world without discriminating against Americans who lack access to technology or the skills to use them.

Our job is to serve the American people. That means maintaining and protecting access for all.

Rep. Sean P. Duffy is a Republican from Wisconsin; Rep. Michael H. Michaud is a Democrat from Maine.

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