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Covid Shows Just How Badly We Need to Close the Digital Divide

Updated on May 5, 4:06 PM EDT

What You Need To Know

A digital divide existed long before the pandemic.

In the U.S., more than 40% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t have home broadband services and 46% don’t have a desktop or laptop computer, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. This compares to the roughly two-thirds of adults living in high-earning households who have home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet. Another Pew survey found that over a third of low-income households with school-aged children don’t have Internet at home, with Black and Hispanic teens least likely to have access.

The shift to remote work and school made these disparities more urgent. Jobs incompatible with telecommuting were hardest hit by the recession. And students who relied on publicly available Wi-Fi at libraries and elsewhere had to hunt for Internet in places like McDonald’s parking lots or go without school altogether.

Major telecom companies provided free Internet to hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and their families for a few months last year, but ended their programs in June — even as many schools and workplaces stayed shut. Congress’s Covid relief bills have included funding for increased broadband access, and President Joe Biden has pledged to spend $100 billion to get broadband to more people as part of his infrastructure plan.

By The Numbers

  • 44% The number of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t have home broadband service
  • 18% The number of Hispanic teenagers who say they do not have access to a home computer, compared to 11% of Black and 9% of White teenagers
  • $100 billion The amount of money Biden promised to spend over the next eight years to deploy broadband throughout America in his infrastructure package

Why It Matters

Because of the digital divide, the pandemic could exacerbate existing achievement gaps. School shutdowns will not only cause disproportionate learning losses for Black, Hispanic and low-income students but also lead more of them to drop out, according to a report from McKinsey & Company. The report estimated these cohorts could lose up to a year of learning during the pandemic.

Critics say Biden’s broadband plan isn’t bold enough given the scale of the issue. The administration’s proposal is based on outdated mapping of the country’s digital infrastructure that suggests there are fewer than 14.5 million people who lack broadband access. Independent research group BroadbandNow estimates the number is almost three times higher than that.

    Crumbling schools and unequal broadband access won’t be cheap or easy to mend.