What is the digital divide and how can we help solve it?

February 04, 2022

By Claire Hegstrom

What is the digital divide and how can we help solve it?

Woman stands at the kitchen counter holding an iPad. She shows her mom how to use the device as they sip on coffee together.

Also known as the technology gap, the digital divide refers to inequities between those who have access to affordable broadband internet, digital devices and the skills required to use digitally connected devices, and those who do not. The divide between these groups of people creates disparities in all areas of life, from education to career development, and even healthcare and well-being.

While the digital divide can be found in every corner of the nation in both rural and urban areas, it disproportionately impacts people of color, older adults, households with lower incomes, rural communities, and people with disabilities.

Let’s take a deeper look at three key issues that contribute to the digital divide.

21.2 million Americans lack access to the internet

The digital divide isn’t a new problem. The term itself was coined in the 1990s, with a much narrower focus on those who lacked access to computers and cell phones. However, the internet has since become such a prominent part of everyday life, from tablets in elementary school classrooms to ordering groceries, that we can’t escape the fact that broadband services are no longer a luxury, but a necessity in every household.

Of the 21.2 million Americans without high-speed internet, 17 million of those people live in urban areas where internet service infrastructure is severely lacking, making higher internet speeds – at a higher price – a necessity.

Lack of access to the internet can also be linked to systemic inequities faced by people of color. 66% of Black households and 61% of Latinx households are without a broadband connection.

Household income and broadband adoption are also strongly correlated. In a recent Pew survey, only 43% of adults making $30,000 a year or less had internet service at home. In contrast, 93% of adults surveyed with a household income of $100,000 or more did have internet access.

More than 1 in 10 households don’t have a computer

Almost everything we do is online: Ordering prescriptions, applying for jobs, depositing checks into bank accounts, and even virtually visiting the doctor! Having access to digital technologies is necessary to function and participate in our rapidly evolving world.

However, a staggering 1 in 10 households in the United States don’t have a computer at home to access the lifesaving digital technology we all need! The COVID-19 pandemic shed light on just how vital access to technology – and the skills to use it – are at every stage of life.

When remote learning went into full effect in March 2020, parents, students, and teachers alike witnessed the devastating impacts of the digital divide. 1 in 5 parents with children said their homework couldn’t be completed due to computer access issues. The lack of access to computers is even higher in Black and Latinx households, where 1 in 3 families don’t have access to a computer.

16% of the U.S population lack basic digital skills

The digital divide also refers to the gap in knowledge needed to use digitally-connected devices. 52 million American adults lack the basic digital literacy skills needed to thrive in our electronic-based world today.

Digital skills are imperative to actively participate in the U.S. workforce. In fact, 74% of adults are required to use a computer at work. In addition, almost all job applications must be filled out online, as paper applications are incredibly hard to come by.

There’s a growing necessity for digital skills when it comes to healthcare as well. We order our prescriptions, make doctor appointments, and schedule vaccinations from our smartphones or laptops. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some physicians were only available to see patients for non-emergency visits via telehealth appointments. Adaption of technology is a necessity for the safety and well-being of our population.

How we can help bridge the digital divide

It may seem like this issue is too big for one person alone to make a difference. Yes, it will take years of infrastructure work, the passing of meaningful legislation and grassroots efforts to completely close the digital divide. But there are so many things we can all start doing today to help bridge the digital divide and bring awareness to the issues our communities face!

For starters, get in the habit of recycling your used electronics: Laptops, computers, smart phones, and tablets. There are endless resources across the nation where you can donate your devices – no matter how new or old. They are then securely wiped of all information and restored to factory settings before given to community members who need it most. In addition, over 60 million computers are purchased yearly in the U.S. If your workplace has recently purchased new laptops or computers, talk to your leadership about donating old hardware to a safe and secure company like PCs for People

Lastly, if you know of a neighbor who is struggling to use their digital devices, or perhaps is having trouble paying for internet, lend a helping hand. Give them a list of low-cost internet providers who specialize in connectivity options for all. When we all work together, we can connect our communities, one family at a time.

 

Looking for more ways to make an impact? Read these other blog posts:


Claire Hegstrom is an advocate of the credit union movement through and through. Passionate about financial education, she approaches money conversations from a candid and inclusive space focused on growth and awareness. As our credit union founding father, Ed Filene, once said, “Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something still better.” Claire hopes reading Money Mentor will help transform your life from the best to even better.

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