This spring, the intertwined issues of racism in our society and its underlying systems, the poor distribution of healthcare and the lack of coherence in planning for and responding to a pandemic, the vulnerability and injustice of our economy and the consequences of the digital divide were exposed with extraordinary clarity.
It is best address all of these issues together, with a national strategic plan for equality of health, education, and opportunity. But it has become clear that we cannot solve any element without equalizing the digital divide. And reducing the digital divide might be one of the quicker elements of disparate opportunity to be addressed.
The Digital Divide is the un- even distribution of access to information and communications technology. This gap deeply determines people’s access to health, livelihood, education, food, financing, information and political influence. A society cannot provide equality without equality of digital access.
If we are to create a more just and equal society, then all of its members must have equal access to health, work, education, food, and financial services. To achieve these in the 21st century requires pervasive, affordable digital access.
The Covid 19 pandemic accelerated the impact of digital disparities in the contemporary economy. Those who could work from home did, and significantly increased their skills, resources and connectivity within days or weeks. Those who needed to show up to work essential jobs, such as health care orderlies and custodial staff worked in the non digital realm for far less pay. And those whose jobs were deemed neither digital nor essential were out of work, and face an uncertain future. Low income residents on the wrong side of the digital divide are now even more likely to be disconnected from opportunity, health and wellbeing.
COVID 19 sheltering in place directives underscored how deep the digital divide is. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29% of Americans could work from home prior to the COVID Crisis . By mid April 2020, the Brookings Institute estimated that 50% of work had moved to home . However, the percentage of people able to work from home varied significantly by quintile. Only 42% of those in the bottom quintile were able to work from home, while 72% % in the top quintile could work from home.
Health care is also increasingly being delivered on-line. The Covid 19 Pandemic accelerated this, which much health screening now being delivered by telemedicine. Those without consistent email addresses or cell phone numbers, or home computers are much less likely to receive care, especially when sheltering in place. Almost 50 % of Americans suffer from low health literacy, leading to poorer health outcomes . And without on-line access, they are less likely to have the knowledge to advocate for their needs in the increasingly complex health care system.
The lower a family’s income, the less likely it is to have digital access. And within each quintile of income, Hispanic and black families have even lower digital access . There are many reasons for this, but much of it relates to family credit and banking. One needs a credit or debit card to open an internet account.
There is also a persistent variation between urban, suburban and rural rates of digital inclusion . Not only do rural residents have less access to high speed internet access, but they
also have fewer devices and spend less time on-line when they do have access. And black majority rural counties have substantially lower rates of high-speed internet access, and devices to use it then white majority counties .
The COVID 19 pandemic has revealed how important digital access is. With school lessons being given at home, only those families that are on-line, and have homework capable devices that can be dedicated to their children can keep their kids up with their classmates. Tablets are insufficient- students may be able read or download presentations on them, but they are very hard to write with or communicate back. Education is an iterative, interactive experience.
While 82% of white families own a desk top or top top computer only 58% of black families, and 57% of white families have one at home . For a family to really be able to thrive in the digital realm, it needs one desktop or laptop for every working or studying member of the family.
When the COVID 19 pandemic restricted place-based shopping, the top two quintile families had much more access to diverse and affordable food products.
42 Million low income families currently use SNAP (food stamps) to help them purchase food . As of April 2020, only a few States permit the use of electronic SNAP to purchase food online . Thus, while higher income families can order their food safely on line for delivery to their homes, lower income families must show up at grocery and other stores to shop.
10 million low income American families are unbanked, and another 25 million are under banked, using payday loans, check cashing services or money orders . These families venture out to purchase expensive money orders to pay their rent and for other necessities.
One of the reasons that low income families avoid banks is to avoid having their wages garnished. Many low income families have judgements out for unpaid credit card bills, parking tickets or child support. Some high income families shelter their income in off shore trusts to avoid garnishment for taxes etc. Low income families need some form of affordable protection, if they to be able to move on line.
The solution, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance proposes  “that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and
Communication Technologies (ICTs). This includes 5 elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; 2) internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration .
We believe that every low income family deserves these, along with electronic financial services.
We estimate that overcoming the digital divide has the following costs:
Internet Access: $50 a month (including router rental) / $600 a year
Monthly cost to pay for a computer $29.99 a month / $359 a year
Digital Literacy training: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/digitalliteracy/home Free
Applications: Microsoft Office for five people / $49.00
On line bank account $4.95 a month / $59.40 a year
So for approximately $1067 a year, at retail prices, family can be brought on line, with modest costs for each additional computer needed.
For families living in Section 8 or Low Income Housing Tax credit projects, for a cost of approximately $1000 per family a year, a digitally trained Resident Service Coordinator can support 90 families. This home-based service is probably the most effective way to overcome the digital divide. Resident service coordinators can help families access digital accounts, learn how to use them, overcome credit issues, sign up for essential services, connect them to health care providers and engage in ongoing education.
There are two final points to be considered.
The first is that the digital last mile needs to be viewed as a 21st century common good, just as roads became a universal 20th century common good.
And the last is that the digital realm brings with it great issues of privacy. Public digital data must be held in a digital trust, not by government, but in a separate trust, managed to protect individual’s privacy, and for the common good.
APPENDIX: where do low income people live:
Low income families live in one of four housing typologies, each which poses differing opportunities to overcome the digital divide.
The first is Section 8 multifamily housing, built between 1978 and 1984. There are currently 2 million people living in 1.2 million units . These units are highly regulated, with the goal of primarily serving families, and especially seniors, earning less than 30 % of their area’s median income. These all have community rooms. Some of these projects also have a funded resident service coordinator (RSC) . With thought and a bit of funding, these can become digitally inclusive communities. Multi-family buildings can buy internet access at a wholesale price. It can be distributed wirelessly. Classes can be held, geared to different types of learners.
The second type of multifamily housing is housing built under the low income housing tax credit program (LIHTC) . There are currently 2.3 million units funded under this program . These units are highly regulated, with the goal of serving families earning less than 60 % of their area’s median income. This program does not fund operating expenses for the project nor of for the residents, but many are owned or affiliated with not for profits that provide resident services.
These two typically will have a community room, often but not always with computers. But because these are part of a rent regulated structure, they have known owners, usually not for profits or mission focused for profit developers, who can be worked with to create digital access.
The third type of multifamily housing is called naturally occurring affordable housing- low cost, unregulated, unsubsidized “ cheap apartments”. There are approximately 5.5 million of these units . The Urban Land Institute calls them “ fatigued”. They typically are owned by smaller, less professional, under resourced companies. They provide no social services to their residents and their owners are generally not as easy to identify.
The last are single family rental properties. 5.9 Million low income families rent homes .
These have absolutely no access to facilitation to digital services.
Families living in naturally occurring affordable housing, and in single family homes will most likely best access digital inclusion via their local library or other capable community centers.
Typically, these provide digital services on site. But to create a ubiquitous society of digital inclusion, libraries and community centers will need funding to support their clients in home based services, training, software, equipment rental and to sign up for electronic bank accounts.
Without this support for access, technology and support, we will not be able to overcome the digital divide.