Digital Equity for America’s Most Vulnerable Populations

A baby boomer who has never owned a smartphone, a middle schooler from an underserved community and a citizen from a small town in Montana might have more in common than you would think. When we think of digital inequity, we usually imagine a person from a low-income background who doesn’t have internet access. However, the phenomenon encompasses more than that.

According to Consortium for School Networking, digital equity has three pillars: access to high-speed internet, access to devices, and digital literacy. Not having all three inhibits a person’s ability to fully use the internet and its vast resources. While anyone can suffer from digital inequality, low-income students, senior citizens and rural residents suffer from it at a disproportionate rate.

Students

When teachers assign a research paper, they often require students to research, type and print their work at home. Unbeknownst to them, many students might not have access to a printer or computer at home. When teachers require papers to be typed and printed, they unintentionally privilege the students who have access to these resources at home.

According to USAFacts, 4.4 million children lack consistent internet access, placing them at a disadvantage academically. This issue doesn’t just hinder homework; it also affects a student’s ability to apply to colleges, study for standardized tests and take the GED. These processes are almost entirely digital. Even if students borrow laptops, they might lack a reliable wi-fi connection at home to comfortably complete their assignments.

Prior to COVID-19, students could access the internet at school, public libraries or cafes. However, current restrictions limit this flexibility.

How to make it better

Schools can bridge the digital divide by creating programs that allow students to rent laptops and bring them home. These programs would mirror how students borrow library books.

Also, teachers can allow students to handwrite essays. With the option to handwrite assignments, teachers put the emphasis on substance, not formality. While digital literacy is an important skill, a lack of digital access or literacy should not impact a student’s grades.

Senior citizens

In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 25% of Americans over the age of 65 never use the internet. For users under the age of 64, that number lies in the single digits and lies at 7% for the general population. With many services, like applying for benefits or registering for vaccines, available online, seniors may miss out on opportunities. This imbalance affects seniors’ confidence. While 74% of internet users ages 18-29 claim they feel very confident using the internet, only 26% of internet users ages 65 and up feel confident surfing the web.

How to make it better

For seniors who don’t want to use the internet, companies can offer more services over the phone. This way, seniors have a choice when registering for a service, which can already be a daunting experience, without dealing with the added stress of navigating confusing websites.

Free digital literacy courses for seniors can also help shrink the gap. Making time for one-on-one support will help seniors feel confident as they learn.

Rural residents 

Rural residents’ digital inequity has to do with the fact that their infrastructure doesn’t allow for high-speed broadband. In a study conducted by Pew in 2018, 24% of rural residents said that high-speed internet was a major problem. Comparing that number to the mere 9% of suburban residents and 13% of urban residents, it is clear that high-speed internet needs to improve its connectivity for Americans in pastoral regions. In the American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden has stressed the importance of providing high-speed internet for all Americans. After receiving feedback to only invest in traditional infrastructure like roads, Biden stated “High-speed internet is infrastructure.” Since most people can work, attend school and pay bills virtually, high-speed internet has become more essential than driving.

How to make it better

Unlike other demographics, the problems of rural residents can’t be solved with well-meaning programs. The digital infrastructure in these areas needs renovation. Once the American Jobs Plan passes, high-speed internet will receive the proposed $100 billion boost. This will greatly improve broadband for many. In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, allotting a budget of $20.4 billion to improve rural infrastructure. The fund awarded money to help five million homes and businesses that lacked high-speed broadband. Phase 2 of the fund will focus on the next tier of underserved rural areas. To show the progress of the program, the FCC created a color-coded map to show the levels of service for winning bidders.

We can’t achieve digital equity overnight. However, we must stay aware of inequality and understand how it affects others. Even if we don’t have the power to enact widespread change, we can at the very least practice empathy toward those with less privilege and support policies that will fix these issues.