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.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

This entry was posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Disconnected, Disenfranchised, and Poor: Addressing Digital Inequality in America

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  4. John McDonald says:

    Excellent article!! I grow weary of the weak counter arguments against ideas such as this. The idea that we cannot afford to implement the programs described or that it is a only an “emotional” response to do so make little sense. Logically if 10 people living in poverty are given adequate and equal resources to gain a better education,better job opportunities,etc., then it is very likely these same 10 people will improve their standard of living and at the same time become contributing members of society. Since it is a given that better education opportunities for all spur economic growth, leaving behind any group of society based on the excuse “we can’t afford it” has no merit. In other words we can’t afford not to do more to reach those in the grips of poverty.


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  6. Varg Freeborn says:

    We know each other fairly well, and I know your positions are compassionate and noble. You pose the solution that the poor or underprivelaged should be subsidized to raise their standards of living and increase their “digital equality” opportunity.

    I pose the question, how many of these households will you personally pay for? Are you willing to personally provide internet services for as many families as you can afford?

    Now, a second question, would you be willing to overextend yourself to the point that you would be taking out loans and maxing out your credit cards to pay for even more families?

    If you have the lease bit of personal finance sense, you wouldn’t do it.
    So why expect the same from the nation, which has already overextended itself to the point of quantitative easing “printing money to offset the debt”, which is very similar to an individual having maxed out his or her credit cards, and getting new cards to pay down old cards. A dangerous game that is ill-fated no matter how you spin it.

    As a nation, our public debt equals roughly 95% of our GDP. How figures such as this do not cause a panic is beyond understanding. If we want to truly address the unequal access to quality of life suffered by the poor, why don’t we look at the source of highest suffering inflicted upon them, inflation.

    The lowest income earners, including the homeless, are hit the worst by the effects of inflation because they are precisely the ones to whom every single dollar counts. Prices rise not as a result of greed, but as a side-effect of the devaluation of the dollar, which is resultant from the printing press running overtime.

    Government programs, regulations and subsidies speed this problem exponentially by causing increased costs and unfunded liabilities that must be paid for by “quantitative easing”. Every time they pump a stimulus into the economy, the value of the dollar drops and the poor suffer the worst.

    Hopefully soon our discourse can turn to the source and away from our emotional or political preferences.


    • JMa says:

      To the person who replied above me, it’s been 3 years since your post. The following article by Professor Feldstein documents why quantitative easing has so far led to a meager 1.5% inflation. http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-inflationary-risk-of-us-commercial-bank-reserves-by-martin-feldstein. Undoubtedly inflation could strike upwards (>2%) moving forward if quantity easing and the Fed’s bond purchase program persists and bank’s are willing to lend and reduce excess reserves held at the Fed. However, the fact that inflation has been at most 1.5% discounts the argument that the Federal Reserve “printing money” and going about quantitative easing is the “highest suffering inflicted upon [the poor], inflation.” Inflation in excess definitely hurts the least wealthy as the least wealthy are more likely to spend on products and goods that increase in price. However, I do not agree with your argument that because our nation has a high national debt (the national debt is an issue, just not relevant in this context) and is “already overextended itself to the point of quantitative easing “printing money to offset the debt””, we should not pursue ways of assisting the underprivileged access to computer. First of all, the Fed’s actions via “printing money” since 2008 through programs such as the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility actually helped out the individuals the author seeks to help out by stabilizing student loan , auto loans rates. Secondly, assuming you agree with the claim made by the author that access to computers can greatly improve an individuals economic needs, granting subsidies or providing greater access to the internet via greater spending in public libraries or public tech clusters could actually offset the cost of welfare payments spent. Greater human capital via greater access to internet and websites such as coursera that offer world class education means greater productivity among workers which is better for our nation. It seems to me what the author recommended is perfectly sane, even with a national debt. If anything, better education and better access to internet is what we need if we want to erase our nation’s debt by allowing for better transparency as to what is going in Washington and for voter’s to be knowledgeable of why we have $17 trillion national debt.


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