off the charts
POLICY INSIGHT
BEYOND THE NUMBERS

FCC Initiative Could Help Bridge Digital Divide

| By CBPP
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CBPP

The digital divide between low- and higher-income families persists, as the New York Times highlights this week in a piece describing low-income students’ lack of access to high-speed Internet.  The Times’ article comes as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering an initiative that could increase broadband access among low-income households — a much-needed step, as we explained in a recent paper.

Internet use — especially broadband (i.e., high-speed Internet, which is generally defined as an Internet connection other than dial-up) — has in many ways become central to participating in society.  Yet less than half of low-income households now have high-speed Internet connections in their homes, despite mounting evidence that such connections help people get jobs and do well in school, access health and other services, and make more economical consumer purchases.

Consider broadband’s role in job searches.  Unemployed people conducting Internet job searches between 2005 and 2008 found work about 25 percent faster than those with comparable skill levels and other characteristics who did not search online, a study concluded.  And the federal government and over 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies — including Target and Walmart, which employ many low-income individuals — use online applications.     

These Internet access needs extend to education, too, as the Times emphasizes.  Our report noted how homework increasingly demands the Internet; nearly all school districts serving low-income populations reported that at least some of their teachers assign Internet-based homework.  And most high school students need to use the Internet outside of school to complete their homework. 

Yet 40 percent of households with school-age children and incomes under $25,000 lack a high-speed connection at home, the Pew Research Center found — findings echoed in a new Common Sense Media study that the Times featured.  Thus, a large number of low-income children face significant obstacles to completing their homework. 

Individuals and families need Internet access to fully participate in modern society.  Efforts to close the digital divide and bring broadband’s irreplaceable benefits to everyone — such as the FCC’s proposed initiative — are both necessary and welcome.