Blair Horner: The Digital Divide Undermines Democracy | WAMC

Blair Horner: The Digital Divide Undermines Democracy

Sep 28, 2020

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus America’s economic and racial disparities.  A stark example is in health care delivery: when it comes to access as well as quality, racial, gender, and geographic differences are enormous and growing.

Another widening disparity exposed by the pandemic is when it comes to access to technology.  On one side are the technological “haves,” including well off and young New Yorkers; on the other side are the technological “have nots,” poor, lower income and older New Yorkers.

Across the nation, the pandemic has shifted the workplace from offices to homes.  Too often left in the dust have been the essential workers or those who do not have the resources to afford digital access.  These workers may face greater health risks and job insecurity because they cannot work from home.

Over time the longstanding debate over the digital divide has tended to focus on education and with good reason.

Simply put, students cannot participate in remote learning if they do not have access to a computer and a reliable Internet connection.  What had been an advantage for students has become a necessity.  What are those students (and their parents) to do now? 

Persistent digital divides exist in communities – urban, suburban, and rural – across New York; in fact, more than one quarter of students in New York lack access to the Internet and/or appropriate devices to participate in remote online education.  One estimate is that over half a million New York students do not have Internet access at home. 

In New York there is a particularly distinct divide between urban and rural areas.  The more rural counties in New York tend to have less access to high-speed Internet service than do the more urban counties.  

New York is nowhere near the bottom of the nation, in fact the state ranked number two for Internet connectivity.  In New York, Internet infrastructure is not the biggest problem, cost is: 97% of New Yorkers have access to wired Internet, but only 70% of the state has access that costs $60 or less a month. 

There are a number of reasons for the digital divide.  Cable companies often do not serve remote rural areas and even some urban locales because it is too costly to run cables to areas with few customers.  Socioeconomic differences between people of different races, incomes and education also are reflected in access to the Internet.

Households that lack any Internet access are most prevalent in neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty.  In New York City, for example, Internet disparities track closely to socioeconomic factors like poverty.  Seniors are much more likely to be without a broadband Internet connection compared to the general population.  

While the public and policymakers are right to focus on the educational disparities the digital divide exacerbates, there is a cost to democracy, too.

Right now, virtually all state policymaking is done over the Internet.  State legislators participate in hearings and cast votes online.  Many public officials have closed their district offices.  Agency public hearings also are conducted over Internet platforms.  Those without Internet access or the necessary technology to participate in governmental proceedings are essentially locked out – of their own democracy.  And those least likely to have digital access are precisely those who need to participate in governmental decisions since they are most likely to be in need.

More than ever the ability to get help from the government is facilitated – if not dependent – on Internet access.  When the pandemic hit New York with full force, New Yorkers seeking unemployment benefits were directed to state websites.  With local state offices closed and telephone lines clogged, an Internet connection was a lifeline.  During this time much of healthcare and mental healthcare migrated online, as well.  And sadly, the Internet became the new way some said goodbye to loved ones through virtual funerals.

Of course, geographic limits existed prior to the pandemic.  But it was possible for everyone to participate.  Now there is another obstacle to that participation – an obstacle due to the digital divide. 

We did not need a pandemic to recognize that people on the wrong side of the digital divide are at a great disadvantage.  But now it is all too clear that without access to these technologies, too many fare ailing to receive the essential opportunities needed to participate in democracy.  In 2020, Internet access is like getting electricity to your home in the 1930s: It’s essential.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.