The Digital Divide is arguably the single, largest, segregating force in today’s world. If it is not made a national priority, a generation of children and families will mature without these tools that are proving to be the key to the future. – PR Newswire 2000, cited by Sipior and Ward
Populations that lack access to broadband Internet and the skills required to use the Internet are disproportionately racial minorities, less educated, and lower income.
- 95% of Americans making $50-$75K a year use the Internet, while only 68% of individuals making $30K or less a year do so (Gibbons, 2013).
- 96% of American adults who graduated from college use the Internet, compared to 72% of those with high school diplomas, and 47% of adults without high school diplomas (Gibbons, 2013).
- In the United States, only 55% of African-American households and 57% of Hispanic households have wired Internet at home, compared to 72% of white households (Crawford, 2011).
The digital divide creates a significant financial burden for individuals, businesses, the government, and the economy at large.
Nationally, low-end estimates of the cost of digital exclusion total over $55 billion per year (Digital Impact Group and Econsult Corporation, 2010). Providing non-virtual access to goods, services and information is much more costly than utilizing the Internet for such purposes. Broadband use greatly reduces defections from the labor market, as well as the costs of healthcare provision, government service transactions, and the sharing of information. Research shows that digital inclusion would result in improved national health, education, economic opportunities, civic engagement, public safety and energy use (Digital Impact Group and Econsult Corporation, 2010).
Texas broadband subscribers save an estimated $3,161 each on average per year as a result of driving less to access goods and information, completing tasks faster, and making fewer trips to the doctor or emergency room with the use of the Internet (Connected Texas, 2013). In total, statewide broadband adoption would generate a combined residential savings of $40.9 billion annually. If broadband adoption in the state increased by just 1%, Texans would save an estimated $700 million per year (Connected Texas, 2013).
Americans who do not use the Internet face huge disadvantages in society.
Those who lack computer access and/or skills face:
- Limited access to good and services
- Reduced access to education, creating barriers for learning and advancement
- Increased job search costs, lower earnings, and fewer job prospects
- Reduced access to health information
- Increased costs of household management (i.e. travel costs, time spent completing tasks offline)
Individuals who do not use the Internet have significantly less success than Internet users in finding and applying for jobs, getting hired, earning a living wage, and advancing in the workplace. Roughly 80% of Fortune 500 companies only accept online job applications (Digital Impact Group and Econsult Corporation, 2010). Being web savvy is “becoming more integrated not just into high tech jobs but into all kinds of old economy jobs. Even fast food restaurants, offices, manufacturing, trucking and delivery – there are going to be some aspects of technology involved and that’s going to become even more true in the future” (Mossberger, cited by Boodhoo, 2011). Research shows that less educated individuals (those with a high school degree or less) who use the Internet at work earn $111 more per week than others who are also less educated and do not use the Internet on the job (Mossberger, Tolbert and McNeal, 2008).
Lack of computer skills limits one’s ability to access educational information and attain opportunities for higher education. By the end of 2013, paper GED tests will no longer be available in the United States. All GED testing will be done electronically and will require basic computer skills to complete (Lipke and Farrell, 2013). Similarly, many universities have stopped accepting paper applications and now require all applications to be submitted online. It is even impossible to access many forms of financial aid without using the Internet, as CSS PROFILE – the financial aid application service of the College Board – has transitioned to online-only applications (The Children’s Partnership, 2010). The Internet is also becoming an increasingly important tool for parents to engage in their child’s education. Many school districts, including Austin ISD, now use online portals as the main form of communication with parents around their child’s academic performance, attendance, and upcoming schoolwork and events.
The government is increasingly moving services online and limiting non-electronic ways of accessing services, posing a significant barrier to obtaining services for those who are offline. A 2011 study found that more than 80% of states provide online transactions for tax filing and payment, unemployment insurance applications, and professional license renewals (ALA Office for Research and Statistics, 2011). The Social Security Administration has stopped automatically mailing paper benefit statements; they are now only available online (Miller, 2012). Populations most reliant on government services and benefits – the low-income, elderly and disabled – are the same populations that have less computer access and skills than the general public (Boeltzig and Pilling, 2007).
Internet use can particularly benefit vulnerable populations such as the elderly, veterans, and ex-offenders. For populations that are more likely to experience isolation and loneliness, the Internet can provide a way to connect with others and seek help. Research shows that Internet use can lead to a 20% reduction in depression classification amongst elderly Americans, yet only 42% of those aged 65 and older report that they use the Internet (Ford and Ford, 2009). For veterans suffering from PTSD, especially those who live far from social services or do not have the time or resources to receive in-person therapy, online therapy (called interapy) has proven to be an effective method of mental health care provision (Greedlinger and Clervil, 2011). Furthermore, a case study has shown that for ex-offenders, there is a strong correlation between computer use and recidivism rates. A computer training program for ex-offenders, Prison to Community, resulted in a 78% decrease in the participants’ likelihood to recidivate than nonparticipants, regardless of the duration of participation or the curriculum completed (Economic Development Research Group at Rutgers University, 2009).
Existing measures are falling short in addressing the digital divide.
Smartphones are incapable of bridging the digital divide. While smartphones may provide easy access to activities such as social networking and reading the news, their small screens, slow wireless networks, data caps and lack of a desktop pose serious limitations (Crawford, 2011). A 2013 study revealed that 220 of all Fortune 500 companies’ career sites were only formatted for desktops, while other firms in the study had pages that were modified for mobile use but ultimately made the user go to a desktop to submit a job application (Halzack, 2013). Other common computer tasks such as writing papers and reading complex documents are very challenging on a mobile phone.
Libraries play an important role in providing computer access and training, but they are unable to close the digital divide. “In FY 2011, over 80% of libraries in the U.S. reported that they provided some assistance to patrons applying for jobs and accessing government services online, up from 25% two years before.” (ALA Office for Research and Statistics, 2011) Yet in 2012 almost half of the libraries in the country reported that they did not have enough staff and expertise to help people effectively use online employment and government services (Hoffman, Bertot, and Davis, 2012). Due to “flat or decreasing budgets, a lack of staff, equipment, space, and insufficient Internet speeds” (Hoffman, Bertot, and Davis, 2012), libraries face major barriers to teaching digital literacy skills to patrons. In Texas, only 35% of libraries report that there are always enough computers available to meet the demands of library users (Hoffman, Bertot, and Davis, 2012).
Computer skills are required for jobs in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field.
STEM jobs comprise almost a quarter (23%) of jobs the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos metropolitan area and offer high wages and low unemployment rates for individuals at all levels of educational attainment. One of the most dynamic sectors in the economy, STEM jobs in the U.S. are expected to grow 17% from 2008-2018, compared to a 9.8% growth rate of non-STEM jobs. A study in 2011 found that in the Austin area, those who work in STEM jobs earn on average $31,396 more per year than those who work in non-STEM jobs. For Austin area STEM jobs that require an Associate’s degree or less (43% of STEM jobs in the area), a STEM worker makes on average $20,000 more per year than those with non-STEM jobs requiring similar education.