Disconnected, Disenfranchised, and Poor: Addressing Digital Inequality in America

Reports that 79% of Americans now use the internet should not obscure the needs and problems of those lacking internet access or computer literacy.  In today’s information-based economy, internet access and computer literacy are crucial to economic growth at all levels, including global.  Businesses are attracted to computer-literate communities and hesitate to do business with those that are not, and that can limit economic opportunities for everyone in the community. This is why we should all care about low levels of internet access and computer literacy within our communities.

Research conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that those with limited income and education are most likely to not use the internet or even understand how to use a computer. Internet use is clearly tied to economic status and education.  While 95% of upper- income households use the Internet, 37% of lower-income households do not.  And while 4 % of college graduates do not use the internet, 48 % of those without a high school diploma do not. About half of non-users identify cost and lack of computer skills as the primary barriers.

Poor people most often go to public libraries when they do not have internet access at home or through a job or school. Nearly 19 million people living in poverty use public library computers to access the internet for health, education, and employment information and to read the news. Unfortunately, state and local cuts in library funding have led many libraries to cut hours, staff, and spending on computers. Reducing some people’s only access to the internet deepens the digital divide—when more and more information is most readily available online. These reductions also make it harder for those with limited access to gain computer literacy, and that contributes to the growing economic gap between the rich and poor.

That gap is not just about job skills.  Lack of computer literacy and internet access also prevent people from fully participating in society.  This disenfranchises some people and, in effect, makes them second-class citizens. People who lack internet access and who are not computer literate cannot obtain, communicate, and use information for their benefit as quickly as those who can use the internet effectively. Consider how reliable internet access helps people apply for jobs quickly or take swift political action. As the Social Science Research Council suggests, lack of computer access and literacy are now mechanisms of social and economic exclusion. When the adverse effects of this exclusion (e.g. poverty) are transferred to subsequent generations, groups may be disadvantaged well into the future.

It’s not just disparity in mere access to the internet or the ability to turn on a computer that characterizes digital inequality. Quality of internet access also matters, as do freedom to use the internet without time  and equipment constraints and opportunities to develop information-seeking skills. In her study of American youth, Laura Robinson found that digital inequality exacted a heavy toll on low-income students who competed to obtain internet access at school or the public library.  Lacking internet access at home, the students recounted the stress of skipping lunch, not going to the bathroom, and waiting in long lines in order to use the internet in these settings. A thirty-minute time limit on terminal use in some libraries also caused the students emotional stress. Limited access led low-income students to spend less time surfing the internet for information than their higher-income counterparts who had internet access at home, and it created stresses that probably made their internet use less effective. Group differences in time spent online led to group disparities in the development of information-seeking skills, which placed lower-income students at a disadvantage in school and the labor market.

No group should be denied internet access and the benefits derived from its use because of low income, place of residence, disability, gender, or race-ethnicity. To bring about true digital equality in America, a holistic approach must be implemented. Under this approach, high-speed internet would be installed in underserved communities. Computers would be designed so that the disabled could affordably use them and go online. Subsidies would be provided to impoverished households that could not afford internet connection. The functionally illiterate would receive the literacy and computer skills they need in order to access the internet. Additional computer technology centers would be built, and existing ones, staffed at higher levels. Internet access at public libraries would be upgraded and increased. Child care assistance would be given to low-income parents to take computer classes so that they might qualify for better jobs. More would be done to help poor inner-city youth attain a high school diploma and post-secondary education. Such changes might help poor people improve their chances to secure jobs with livable wages, so they could afford internet access at home. Under a holistic approach to digital inequality, the goal would be to empower all groups to participate fully in our information society, so that fewer are left behind— now or in the future.


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