Home > Uncategorized > Digital Divide Real, Persistent Impediment to Economic Mobility… Proof that “Invisible Hand” NOT Working

Digital Divide Real, Persistent Impediment to Economic Mobility… Proof that “Invisible Hand” NOT Working

May 23, 2016

In the early 1990s, the internet was emerging as a source of information and it appeared that the use of technology might be a means of equalizing educational opportunity. But that promise was dimmed when it became evident that technology was not being made available to those on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder and the term “digital divide” was coined to describe this gap in access. A 2002 Edutopia article by Norris Dickard and Diana Schneider offered an overview of the problem as described in a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Commerce title “A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet,“.  The study concluded that government spending was no longer needed since “Americans are gaining access to computers at an acceptable pace”, reflecting the perspective of the Bush administration in office at the time. Mr. Dickard and Ms. Schneider noted that not everyone held the same perspective:  

In response to arguments that the Internet is unnecessary or something of a luxury, Mark Lloyd, Executive Director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, said, “Being disconnected in the Information Age is not like being deprived of a Mercedes or some other luxury. Being disconnected means being disconnected from the economy and democratic debate.”

Fast forward 14 years and we find that Mr. Lloyd was correct: being disconnected from the internet DOES mean being disconnected from the economy and democratic debate… whether you live in a rural community or the city.

Last week’s Huffington Post featured an article by a team of writers from the Center for Public Integrity whose title tells the story today:

Rich People Have Access To High-Speed Internet; Many Poor People Don’t

Left behind at school, at home and at work: “The civil rights issue of our time”

The HuffPo article describes the frustration of Curtis Brown, Jr., an aspiring African American entrepreneur who lives in rural VA where he only has access to satellite services for internet. The article notes that the Center for Public Integrity study found that Mr. Brown’s situation is hardly unique… and hardly different from 2002:

…even though Internet access has improved in recent years, families in poor areas are almost five times more likely not to have access to high-speed broadband than the most affluent American households. That means no access to online jobs, and no access to health care advice, education, government services and banking — everything needed to be a full participant in today’s society. This harsh reality has led to a new kind of segregation.

“Internet access,” says James Lane, superintendent of Goochland County Public Schools, “is the civil rights issue of our time.”

The Superintendent’s district offers a stark comparison of haves and have nots since roughly half the district, located along the James River, is affluent and has internet access but half is poverty stricken and lacks access. The result?

And the effects… are profound. Three years ago, the school system began giving a laptop or iPad to each student. Teachers incorporate the devices into classroom exercises; in one recent class students searched the Internet to find requirements for their chosen careers. Teachers also would like to assign homework that requires accessing online resources when students leave school. But because many students have no broadband at home, the school has implemented a rule that teachers can’t assign homework that depends on the Internet. Even so, students without Internet are falling behind, Lane said.

“The kids who have access are learning anytime, anywhere they want to,” said Lane, who will become the superintendent of schools for neighboring Chesterfield County in July. “But the kids who don’t have access at home, basically their learning stops at the moment they leave the school house.”

So much for the promise of technology as a means of providing equal educational opportunity in rural America. But what about urban areas? Don’t they have equal access?

The short answer is “NO”. As reported by Cecilia Kang in today’s NYTImes unemployed residents in Detroit find themselves trapped behind a digital wall. Ms. Kang’s article describes the struggles residents of the Hope Village neighborhood encounter because they are unable to afford high speed broadband or the data plans required to make extensive use of cell phones. She writes that areas like Hope Village, where unemployment is over 20%

“…are being left out for many reasons, including low education rates, poor transportation and fewer entry-level jobs. But lack of Internet access, city officials and economists say, is also a crucial — and underappreciated — factor. The consequences appear in the daily grind of finding connectivity, with people unable to apply for jobs online, research new opportunities, connect with health insurance, get college financial aid or do homework.

The effects of this digital divide are clear and obvious: a vicious circle of poor educational opportunities and unemployment continues for generation after generation. And even tough it is more obvious than ever that broadband access should be a utility in the same way that water and sewer services are, 40% of Detroit residents do not have access to broadband and the lack of broadband access persists in rural America.

The closing paragraphs of the 2002 Edutopia article noted that many politicians believed the market place would solve this real and persistent problem:

Nobody believes that technology will be a quick-fix solution to poverty, but ensuring that underserved individuals and communities can access education and tools to improve the quality of their lives certainly appears to be a critical piece of the answer. The appropriations process will go on until September, when the 2003 budget will be finalized. Until that time, the debate will continue with one side saying “the invisible hand” of the free market is taking care of the problem and another pressing to save federal investments they feel are critical to connecting all Americans.

We know now how that “invisible hand” really  works: it widens the divide and enables the affluent children to take full advantage of the resources available on line while the parents of children raised in poverty are unable to find work or research the kinds of schools that might benefit them.




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