The Digital Divide in the United States
Internet Access in the US
Internet access is changing the way the world learns, communicates, and does business, among many other things. It has led to the growth of massively profitable technology firms and changed the essence of the economy. Internet access is becoming increasingly essential for engaging with the modern world.
While it seems like access to Internet in the United States should be universal, about 10% of adults don’t have Internet access today. On its face this doesn’t seem so bad, but the fraction varies a lot across demographics.
High quality Internet access at home is important because more services are moving online, including advances in communication, entertainment, career services, and healthcare. Accessing Internet outside the home or through a mobile device limits what an individual can do online and places higher costs on tasks like finding a job.
Based on the Current Population Survey, about 87% of US adults in 2015, the latest year that data is available, had Internet access at home (after adjusting for time trends and variance across survey years). Because this matches the overall data cited above fairly closely, it suggests we can use CPS data to measure Internet usage across demographic groups.
The analysis reveals that the US is far from universal with large amounts of inequality in Internet access at home.
What Drives Digital Inequality
While the overall rate Internet access at home (about 87% as of 2015) might not seem problematic, it obscures differential access rates across demographic groups.
Below is the likelihood that someone would have internet access at home across regions in the US.
The South, especially the West South Central region, has lower Internet access rates than other parts of the US. Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas are in this region.
Still, starker differences exist across education levels as we show below. For individuals with less than a high school degree, Internet access rates at home are below 70% on average, and for those with a high school education, access rates are slightly above 80%. Both rates are substantially below rates for those with higher education (and note most of the US population lacks a college degree).
The mediating factor for this differential access is income. For high earners, the difference across education levels is a lot lower as most high earners are likely to have Internet access at home regardless of education level. The gap widens as we go down the income ladder. For those at income levels of $50,000 or less and no college, Internet access rates are below 80% and below 60% specifically for low income individuals with less than a high school degree.
One question is whether these individuals would want Internet access or not. The CPS specifically asks those without Internet access at home why they do not have it. Although around half of those without Internet say they don’t want it, the majority of the remaining individuals mention specifically that they either do not have a computer (~10%) or cannot afford Internet access (~30%). Both these reasons suggest that inability to afford Internet access is a major barrier for lower income households to achieving digital equality.
The Impact of Digital Inequality
Beyond impacting quality of life, a lack of Internet access in the home can impact individuals economically as well. Today, many companies are posting job opportunities online and browsing the Internet for openings makes it easier to discover opportunities that match specific criteria. Searching for jobs online lowers the friction of applying to multiple companies and provides lots of access to training information for interviews that boost career prospects.
Inequality in Internet access that we see above can then impact employment rates across income and education levels. Indeed, the fraction of individuals that use the Internet to find a job across education levels matches the trend in overall Internet access. Those with lower levels of education are significantly less likely to use the Internet to find jobs, raising the overall cost of discovering employment opportunities for this group as they have to increasingly rely on offline social networks and local advertisements.
It also partially explains why individuals are increasingly moving less for employment opportunities. As more career services move online, those without Internet access in the home are at a disadvantage in discovering them.
Policy to Solve Digital Inequality
As we saw above, the main factors affecting rates of Internet access in the home are education and income. In addition a substantial fraction of lower education and lower income survey respondents reported the inability to afford adequate computer equipment or access to Internet services.
Therefore, to address digital inequality, policy needs to help expand both the income of individuals who want to be able to purchase these services and expand public access to the Internet.
On expanding income, increasing existing programs like the EITC that boost earnings or launching new programs that provide unconditional cash transfers can help tremendously in addressing digital inequality (and inequality in other areas of like like housing and healthcare).
To increase public access, governments can both invest in broadband infrastructure in areas where access rates are low and also maintain the funding of public libraries, which currently provide free Internet access to many individuals.
The plot below shows the fraction of individuals in the US who access the Internet at a public library as a function of income and education. While higher education groups access the Internet at a public library significantly more often than those with lower education, there is a larger effect across income levels. Poorer Americans are significantly more likely to access the Internet in public libraries, suggesting that those institutions provide a way to combat digital inequality. Appropriately funding them and launching outreach programs in local communities around access can help address digital inequality.
Technology is reaching a tipping point today and will dramatically transform the future economy. Access will increasingly determine economic outcomes for every individual, so we need to increase equality of access to technology for everyone, driving policy to expand Internet access.