The Digital Divide and its Impact on Low-Income Youth

I recently read an article on Mashable.com titled, “The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans behind”.  The digital divide issue has been apart of the American psyche for the past 20 years and it’s still something that we continue to wrestle with today. In the United States wealthy and middle class Americans tend to benefit more from information technology compared to low-income Americans. “The same U.S. residents who were disenfranchised in the 1990s (low income, rural and/or minorities) still are largely disenfranchised today.” (http://www.ors.ala.org/libconnect/2011/12/13/a-new-digital-divde/)

The article in Mashable.com looked at how the divide impacted low-income students.  For example, there are many low-income students that lack adequate Internet access, many schools (in these communities) suffer from insufficient funding that could help promote and teach Internet research skills and computer skills.   It also looks at efforts being made in helping low-income households obtain Internet access. It is disturbing that basic technology (e.g., adequate Internet services and computers) is hard to come by for low-income citizens in the United States.   After reading this article I became increasingly concerned about the inconsistencies surrounding education in low-income communities as well and the fact that they are being left behind in the information age. 

 The article looked a school in Newark, New Jersey called Newark Leadership Academy.  This school is located in one of the poorest communities in the nation.  Unfortunately, “…like all public schools in the city, Wi-Fi isn’t available to teachers or students.”   According to the article many low-income students don’t have Internet access at home because their families can’t afford broadband Internet due to high cost.  This is a serious problem.   According to “…a White House broadband report…the divide is still very much present in the U.S. Though the report found that 91% of American’s had access to high-speed internet service of at least 10Mbps downstream only 71% of Americans actually subscribed to broadband at home-an adoption rate lower than other nations with a similar GDP. That adoption rate was even lower among African Americans and Hispanics.”(http://mashable.com/2013/08/18/digital-divide/

Many of the private companies that sell broadband packages, tend to be expensive. “Cable and broadband companies like Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, which cover some 50 million Americans, make it nearly impossible for low-income or impoverished residents to access Internet for less than $30 dollars per month.”  Since most low-income households can’t afford adequate Internet services they access it in other ways.  Many times, students in poor communities go to their local public library to get free Internet service or if they have a smartphone they access the web through their smartphone device.  Although, in the article they did mention that there were non-profit organizations trying help low-income households get reliable Internet services.  For example, there is a non-profit organization called “Connect2Compete [that] offers Internet for as low as $10 a month. But in order for households to qualify, they must have a student who receives reduced-fare lunches or live in a household with a median income below $35,000 in a pre-qualified zip code.”  (http://mashable.com/2013/08/18/digital-divide/)

 Some may argue that the increase in smartphone usage, could be one of many factors used in helping close the digital divide.  It is true that more Americans own smartphones with Internet accessibility, but it does not mean that the access will help close the divide.  According to the pew report “Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their smartphone is their main source of internet access.”  Although there has been an increase in smartphone use in low-income communities, these devices have limitations.   For example, in the article high school students at the Newark school indicated that “…a smartphone might allow them to apply for a job or download music, but many students have found it impossible to perform the same quality of work on a smartphone that they might be able to do on a personal computer.” So, even though you have more citizens in low-income communities gaining access to the Internet by smartphone they’re still not benefiting from Internet use due to limitations. (http://mashable.com/2013/08/18/digital-divide/

 What also concerns me is the fact that, the education of many low-income students is compromised due to limited Internet access and lack of computer skills.   For example, according to Rachel Warzala (a teacher at Newark Leadership) many of her students were “…extremely computer-illiterate.”  According to the article, the teacher indicated that her students could operate their twitter accounts “…but they…[didn’t] know how to save a word document”.  Another teacher, at the school indicated, “He couldn’t build assignments upon already existing Internet skills of his students-they had none. Instead, he relied upon printed materials for homework and class assignments.”  (http://mashable.com/2013/08/18/digital-divide/) I found these statements very disturbing.  How are these students going to be able to compete at the university level or professional level if they can’t even save a word document?  

 I began to ask myself what could be done to address these issue.  I am of the opinion that “Knowledge Is Power” and because we live in a democracy, there should no discrepancies in how we as citizens attain it.  I would love to see more public libraries become involved in eliminating some of the technological inequities that exist.  There are some libraries that offer technological courses in their communities. For example, “New York City public libraries house over 4,000 publicly available computers and 1,300 laptops available for rent. New York City public library president and CEO Anthony Marx told Mashable [that] the New York Public Library was the leading free provider of basic computer skills training with over 7,700 classes in all of its branches.”  It is great to see such efforts being made by public libraries to provide these services, but unfortunately there are a number of libraries (particularly in low-income communities) that are experiencing serious funding cuts which means, that there are still many low-income citizens still lacking skills needed in order to sustain or compete in the information age.  Even the New York Public Library system has experienced cuts.  Anthony Marx (ceo) indicated, “…over the past five years the city has reduced the library’s funding by 18%, and though they haven’t closed branches or reduced staff it’s nearly impossible to reach every New Yorker in need of a computer or wireless access. (http://mashable.com/2013/08/18/digital-divide/)

The Digital Divide is a very complex issue. It can be assessed on many different demographic levels. I have come to recognize that this divide is not just about having access to the Internet or having a computer in your home, but that education is an important piece to the puzzle.  If I had my way, and if funding was no issue, I would make it mandatory that students attending public schools in low-income communities take computer courses during elementary, middle school and high school.  Not only would they learn basic computer skills (e.g. Microsoft word, Excel, Power Point) but also learn about computer coding, software etc.. Through these courses students would be taught research skills, critical thinking skills and about ethics (as it relates to information technology).  By having such skills, these students will be able to compete with others at the university level as well as professional level and it would increases their chances of moving out poverty.  So as I thought about these issues, two questions came to mind. 1., If the digital divide continues to expand, will it create a bigger class of Haves and Have not’s?  2. As a nation, are we really interested in bridging the digital divide gap and maintaining our democracy? 

By: K. Jackson

 

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