Data Watch: In the largest U.S. cities, the digital divide is a poverty problem July 21, 2021

Data Watch: In the largest U.S. cities, the digital divide is a poverty problem

July 21, 2021
Population, ratio of income to poverty level, presence of computer and type of internet subscription in household data taken from the American Community Survey 5-year Data (2009-2019) API.

When COVID-19 forced school and work and so much else to move online, high-speed internet became no less important to peoples’ lives than having electricity or water. Indeed, broadband itself surfaced as a critical public health asset as doctors switched to telehealth and the strength of our social connections—critical to mental health—became dependent on the strength of our internet connections. 

Yet millions of Americans went without this critical lifeline. And as this Bloomberg Cities analysis of the 100 largest U.S. cities shows, it’s people living in poverty who were most cut off from seeing doctors, cut off from connection with family and friends, cut off from school—cut off from life as they knew it. 

The relationship couldn’t be clearer: The cities with the highest rates of poverty, such as Detroit, Miami, or Laredo, Texas, also have among the lowest rates of broadband adoption. In these three cities, just 63 to 67 percent of residents have both a broadband subscription and a computer to use it. 

Meanwhile, communities with the lowest poverty rates, such as Fremont, Calif., Gilbert, Ariz., or Plano, Texas, have broadband penetration rates far exceeding 90 percent.

For local leaders working for an equitable economic recovery, this picture of the digital divide is pretty sobering. But it’s also a situation they now have the resources to change. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed in March includes several funding streams that can be used to improve broadband access, including $130 billion in direct funding to local governments. 

As they consider what kinds of internet investments to make in their communities, local leaders should keep three things in mind.

First, the problem is not always a lack of broadband infrastructure. According to available data from the Federal Communications Commission, the largest U.S. cities generally have pretty good broadband coverage. Even in poor neighborhoods, it’s usually possible to find at least one and often more internet providers offering services with sufficient bandwidth to logon to Zoom for a class or a telehealth appointment. 

The problem is that people with very low incomes can’t afford to buy it. In Cleveland, for example, the most prevalent broadband services start at $45 a month, or $540 a year, plus taxes and fees. That’s a big bill in a city where, in the poorest neighborhoods, the median household income sits below $15,000.

In most cases, the solution to this problem is not immediately digging up streets and laying down miles of new pipes and cables. It’s subsidizing access so that cost is no longer a barrier, as Jersey City, N.J., has done, and finding ways to sustain it. City leaders also can put pressure on internet providers to share more granular demographic data in order to fully understand access impediments at the neighborhood level. This will help identify exactly where costly infrastructure investments are most in need. 

Second, availability of devices to access the internet remains a persistent problem in the poorest households. While many residents are able to use their phones to get online, small screens are no substitute for larger computers for activities like telework or online school. City leaders need to consider ways to get this equipment into the hands of their poorest residents at no or very low cost to them. Detroit, for example, is working with community partners to take donations of used IT equipment and refurbish working devices to give to families with low incomes. The provision of devices should always be paired with support so recipients know how to use the equipment, have help with troubleshooting, and the confidence to leverage the technology. 

Finally, as city leaders focus on digital transformation, they should keep the digital divide front of mind. While local governments need next-generation digital services to support small business growth, permitting, and so much more, they also need to design interventions that are accessible to their most tech-insecure residents. 

Beth Blauer is the Executive Director of the Centers for Civic Impact at Johns Hopkins University.