Where does the digital divide exist in the United States?

May 13, 2022

By Claire Hegstrom

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 who have affordable access, skills, and support to effectively engage online and those who do not. 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 just as prevalent in our own backyard. Let’s take a look at who experiences the technology gap, and how it shows up in every corner of the nation. 

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 the towers themselves to the 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 that are 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 overall 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.

With a renewed focus on accurate broadband mapping and a $64.5 billion nonpartisan support of fiber placement through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we hope to see a narrowing of the digital divide in these rural communities in the coming years.

Digital skills gaps impact 52 million adults nationwide

Access to computers and the internet are 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: 90% 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 what kind of device the person truly needs. Keep in mind, someone may not understand 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 because they need to be able to print off 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

3. Community resources in an accessible format

One way to help communities get connected to the internet is to share information about the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The ACP is a $14.2 billion government subsidy program that offers monthly discounts on internet service and a one-time discount on an internet-connected device.

These ACP benefits are limited to one discount and one device per household:

  • $30 off broadband services for non-tribal households
  • $75 off broadband services for tribal households
  • $100 stipend for broadband-connected devices

If an individual or family meets any one of the following requirements, they are encouraged to apply for ACP benefits.

  • At or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines
  • Participate in SNAP, WIC, SSI, Lifeline or Medicaid
  • Children participate in free or reduced-price lunch program at school
  • Reside on tribal lands participating in the program
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during this award year

The tricky part about the ACP benefit is that the application can only be accessed online. If you know an individual or a group of people in your community who could benefit from the Affordable Connectivity Program, consider hosting a signup event where your community already congregates.

You’ll need volunteers with laptops, tablets, or smartphones who can help applicants complete the online ACP form. Get creative with your signup event location! Libraries Without Borders champions a Wash and Learn initiative where they bring internet devices and digital skills courses to laundromats. Meeting your community where they are removes the added barrier of transportation, childcare, or other obstacles that could keep them from taking advantage of the ACP benefit.

1 in 5 children can’t complete their homework

According to a recent Pew research survey, 20% of parents with children say their homework can’t be completed due to lack of computer access or an unreliable internet connection. The digital divide is drastically impacting the next generation in more ways than one.

The “homework gap” refers to the inability to complete schoolwork once children go home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a Pew survey showed that 36% of lower income families said their children did not have access to a computer at home, and 40% had to find public Wi-Fi hotspots so their children could complete their homework.

This “homework gap” not only impacts children’s education, it has huge implications on our country’s future gross domestic product (GDP). In a recent McKinsey study, it is estimated that the United States will suffer a 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 with the passing of recent bipartisan bills and a renewed focus of digital inclusion brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re moving in the right direction. We can start by looking out for one another in our own 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 get our entire country connected.


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

Claire Hegstrom is a social impact strategist and digital equity advocate passionate about connecting communities. Focused on supporting financial wellness and independence, Claire approaches educational conversations from a candid and inclusive space centered in growth and awareness. Claire hopes reading Money Mentor will give you the resources to help you thrive in every avenue of life.

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