Why the Unconnected are Second-Class Digital Citizens

This post was cross-posted from the Broadband & Social Justice Blog.

It is no secret that the recession has hit our nation hard, particularly in low-income and minority communities. Naturally, many government institutions and private organizations have turned to broadband to help them cut costs by streamlining various processes and keeping productivity levels high. In general, this is a productive use of a transformative technology — and embracing it to improve efficiency is certainly the right thing for these organizations to do. But what about the millions of Americans who lack a home computer and who remain unconnected to broadband? How are they supposed to apply for government benefits online, access Web-based job search sites, and otherwise participate in this digital revolution?

The short answer is that those who remain unconnected are relegated to second-class digital citizenship.

Being offline puts a person at a severe disadvantage. The seemingly endless array of benefits currently offered online is virtually nonexistent to those who have, for whatever reason, elected not to adopt broadband. And as more and more institutions move their service offerings exclusively online, there is a real danger that non-adopters of broadband will be left behind without access to our nation's most vital information and resources.

What's most unfortunate about this situation is that a significant number of non-adopters in America happen to be racial minorities. Last November the U.S. Department of Commerce released a study revealing that less than 50 percent of African American households have broadband access in their homes. More recently, the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University published a survey revealing that 57 percent of Hispanics say they don't feel they have enough understanding about computers and technology to be competitive in the current job market. This echoes data included in the Commerce Department's study, which reported that the broadband adoption rate among Hispanic households was only slightly higher than the adoption rate for Blacks. These numbers underscore the widening digital divide in this country, where the digital "haves" are first-class digital citizens with a passport to explore all that the Internet has to offer, while the digital "have-nots" are second-class citizens trapped in the analog world.

Closing the broadband technology gap in America is more critical than ever, because broadband is the on-ramp to a growing universe of content and services that have the potential to transform lives. Going online via a broadband connection grants a user access to up-to-the minute news, resources for starting and managing a small business, enhancing educational opportunities, and increasing civic participation. Without access to technology and a reasonable level of digital literacy, a person's quality of life will ultimately suffer. As such, we cannot let minorities fall into second-class digital citizenship status.

Enhancing the broadband adoption rate across every demographic group must be priority number one for policymakers at every level of government. Without more robust broadband adoption, too many Americans will be stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. Social justice and continued economic prosperity demand a concerted effort to get these non-adopters on a path toward first-class digital citizenship.

Why the Unconnected are Second-Class Digital Citizens (Broadband & Social Justice)

Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States (ESA)

Race and Recession Survey (Kaiser Family Foundation)