Where does the digital divide exist in the United States?

May 07, 2024

By Alliant Credit Union

Where does the digital divide exist in the United States?

An older man sits at the kitchen table, looking at his laptop screen. His wife peeks over his shoulders, pondering the contents on the laptop screen as well.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines the digital divide as the gap between those with affordable access, skills and support to effectively engage online and those without. When we think of the digital divide, we may be tempted to believe it doesn’t exist in a place like the United States with our advanced technologies. While the global digital divide is vast and impacts the world population, it is still prevalent in our own backyard. Let’s look at who experiences the technology gap and how it shows up throughout the country.

Rural areas lack access to high-speed internet

Rural and urban communities suffer from different digital equity issues, but the outcome is the same: Lack of connection to high-speed internet. In rural areas, the digital divide is brought on by inadequate infrastructure investment–the physical equipment is not in place to bring broadband to these communities. Deficient broadband infrastructure can range from towers themselves to underground fiber optic cables.

According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports, 25.8% of residents in the Black Rural South lack the option to subscribe to high-speed broadband altogether. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies defines the Black Rural South as 156 counties designated as rural by the USDA and have populations of at least 35 percent African American. Nonexistent broadband infrastructure in areas like these leads to increased unemployment, hospital closures and education inequities.

A Pew Research Center study suggests that rural Americans have lower broadband adoption levels than urban and suburban households. In fact, 28% of those surveyed in rural areas reported not having a home broadband connection.

Digital skills gaps impact 52 million adults nationwide

Access to computers and the internet is only one small portion of the digital divide. Digital skills–the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills–are needed to ensure internet-connected devices are utilized at full capacity.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 74% of adults use a computer at work. But so many of us also use computers, tablets, smart mobile phones and other devices to access the internet in our everyday lives. Digital skills even impact unemployment rates: 94% of job recruiters said they used social media to search for job candidates. If we currently have almost 6 million people unemployed in the U.S., and 52 million adults without the skills to apply for a job online, this creates a systemic workforce issue.

Digital skills gaps should be addressed in multiple ways:

1. Appropriate device for the task at hand

If you want to help an individual get trained on an internet-connected device, make sure you help them find an appropriate device for the tasks they’ll be accomplishing most often.

If they need to apply for jobs, this will involve uploading resumes and cover letters, as well as video conferencing for virtual interviews. A smartphone may not work in this circumstance. Asking open-ended questions will give you a better idea of the kind of device the person needs. Keep in mind that someone may need help understanding the functionality behind each device available to them. There’s a lot to consider, from file sharing, to information storage, to updates in technology your user may not be aware of.

For instance, someone may tell you they need a desktop computer to print directions to the airport and save lots of pictures. However, because you know about GPS functionality and cloud-based storage, you know a smartphone will do the trick!

2. Community-based skills training at no cost to the learner

Do you run a community organization looking for ways to give back to the people you serve? Offering digital skills training is a great place to start! These courses can be weaved into career-building curriculum, college prep classes, community reentry programs, the list goes on!

Start by offering the basics before you look at more specific programs like coding.

Some ideas for course options include:

  • Microsoft Office Suite (Word, PowerPoint, Excel) training
  • Google Analytics Academy
  • Adobe Photoshop training
  • LinkedIn basics
  • WordPress training
  • Microsoft Outlook 101

1 in 5 children can’t complete their homework

According to a Pew research survey, 20% of parents with children say they can’t complete their homework due to a lack of computer access or an unreliable internet connection. The digital divide drastically impacts the next generation in multiple ways.

The “homework gap” refers to the inability to complete schoolwork once children go home. Since the Affordable Connectivity Program, an FCC benefit program that assisted eligible households with funding bandwidth, stopped funding in April 2024, there are concerns of the “homework gap” increasing. Since its launch in 2021, nearly 23 million households benefited from the program, which provided $30 per month towards internet service and a one-time discount for a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers.

This “homework gap” not only impacts children’s education, but it also has huge implications on our country’s future economy. In a McKinsey study, it is estimated that the United States will suffer a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) loss of up to $271 billion per year by 2040 if learning gaps brought on by the pandemic aren’t addressed.

 

The road to digital equity is a long one, but looking into ways you can help increase digital inclusion will help decrease the digital divide. One way to start is by looking out for one another in our communities. Lend a helping hand if you see someone struggling to use their internet-connected device, and recycle your used computers with a certified data sanitization and refurbishing company. Together, we can work to connect our entire country.

Looking for more information on digital inclusion? Read these blog posts:


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