Digital Equity, More Urgent than Ever

Experts discuss overcoming racial and geographic disparities in a post-pandemic world.

Digital Equity, More Urgent than Ever

June 29, 2020

As the past weeks have shown, technology both connects and divides us. Smartphones captured the brutal video of George Floyd’s death, and social media amplified it and helped galvanize millions to demand action. Yet, deep digital divides exist, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed. Those without internet connections are at risk of being left behind as learning and jobs go online, as commerce shifts online for small businesses, as CARES act funds arrive for the unbanked and as cities move information and resources online. And those most at risk for exclusion are too often Black and Brown communities in both rural and urban areas.

“I’ve always thought about technology as the new level of Civil Rights struggle,” said former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter on a recent webinar hosted by the Urban Institute, in partnership with the Center. “Fifty or sixty years ago, folks were marching and demonstrating to have access to a lunch counter, access to a job, access to areas of public accommodations. Now, in the twenty-first century, it’s access to the internet. It’s very difficult to function in this society today if you don’t have access to the internet.”    

This paradox of promise and divide spurred the Center and the Fletcher School at Tufts University to gather several experts for its on-going Inclusive Response and Recovery webinar series to answer the question: how can a digital economy be a force for inclusion, not exclusion?

“If this pandemic has done anything,” said Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation, “I hope it shows that access to the internet is a critical piece of infrastructure and if ever there was a time to make it more equitable, it is now.” 

The digital dividing lines

With COVID-19, the internet has become a critical public resource, helping many of us to maintain social connections, educate our children, share information and news and continue working. "Broadband is a lifeline today,” said Arturo Franco, vice president of data and insights at the Center. 

Yet, the United States lags behind other countries in providing internet access as a public resource, said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of Global Business at Tufts University, whose team is comparing the digital landscape across several countries. “The U.S., being the home of digital innovation, joins the elite club of countries on many measures,” he finds. “But, we start to see an unevenness relative to other countries on the role of technology as a public resource.”

Part of the problem is the spotty internet access across the U.S., often dividing along lines of income, race and geography. Thirty percent of households across 221 cities lacked broadband, Erika Poethig, chief innovation officer at the Urban Institute, has found. A recent survey found fully one-third of students in Los Angeles Unified School District had no computer at home, she said. Geographically, as the map below shows, the Black community is the least connected no matter where they live, the result of a “long legacy of racial and economic segregation,” said Poethig. 

These legacies translate into jobs as well. Black and Latinx workers are much less likely to work in flexible and digitized jobs that allow them to work from the safety of their homes, a new analysis from Tufts University shows. The analysis also finds those with more high-touch, less digital jobs saw greater increases in unemployment.

In rural areas, broadband isn’t evenly shared either. “It’s not the case that all of rural America lacks broadband,” said Dunne. “Some places have done amazing jobs getting wired. But, you typically have either really great or really terrible broadband.”

That means, he said, that while telehealth might help fill the gap in the wake of hundreds of rural hospital closings in recent years, it’s only a solution if hospitals have broadband connections. Similarly, distance learning is great, Dunne said, when families have internet access. Dunne has heard from rural superintendents who, when schools switched to remote learning, "chose to deploy minimal curriculum to everyone because they knew they’d just create a greater divide as some kids could access it and some couldn’t."

Now is the time, said Dunne, to tackle these differences in access to remote learning, safe health care and jobs that are resilient in face of pandemics or job automation. There are many good models for bridging the digital divide in rural and other disconnected places, he said, but “we need policy changes and infrastructure capital to make it happen.” 

Building a more equitable economy is everyone’s responsibility

Despite the digital divide’s growing impact, cities and companies still face legal and other barriers to addressing the inequities, several chief technology officers (CTOs) told Urban Institute researchers. Even if city leaders had the data to understand where connectivity gaps are—which they don’t—and the equipment to fill those gaps, they might lack the authority to do so. The CTOs all agreed, however, that the pandemic has created a sense of urgency that the time is now to bridge the divide.

A more inclusive digital economy will also require the public and private sectors to work in tandem to ensure the strategies and investments to close the divide are deliberate in meeting the needs of communities while policies and approaches to building a digital economy are forward-thinking and inclusive. We must ensure jobs created are available to all, no matter where they live, and that those communities left out of the last recovery can leverage digital tools to surge ahead.

“The private sector has many, many responsibilities on many fronts,” said Chakravorti, “if they are to step up to the plate and address the inequality of access.” The cracks have been exposed, he said, but it is not too late to change course and create a more inclusive economy.

If the pandemic has shown us anything, said Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, director of research at the Institute for Business in a Global Context at Tufts University, it’s that access to the internet should be seen as more than a utility. Its ability to connect us, inform us, deliver health care, digitize jobs and educate children makes it an essential service, he said, and the United States should invest in it as the essential public resource it is.