The Digital Divide Stretches Far Beyond Detroit

Experts say urban American hubs across the country are experiencing similar hurdles to recovery

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Jun 03, 2016 at 5:46 PM ET

The New York Times recently chronicled how Detroit’s increasing economic recovery has stalled for its most impoverished residents—one in four of the city’s 689,000 have no broadband, leaving those who are part of the city’s 11 percent employment rate struggling to find gainful work due to lack of education, fewer entry level jobs, and subpar transportation options, increasingly disadvantaged. But experts on the digital divide say any number of cities in the United States face similar problems, where the most impoverished citizens can’t get online for a number of reasons, in spite of recent state and government initiatives to improve access.

“Detroit sounds extreme, but it’s not,” says Chike Aguh, CEO of the nonprofit, which works to address the digital divide in communities nationwide, and has helped connect over 200,000 families in 48 states. “In Washington, D.C., 27 percent of residents are not connected to the internet at home,” he says. “In Baltimore, Maryland, 35 percent are not connected at home. In Miami, Dade County, 42 percent are not connected at home.” In New York City, some two million residents of New York have no internet access, or a third of households below the poverty level, there.

In Chicago, where Karen Mossberger, a professor and the director of the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, and a colleague, Caroline J. Tolbert, looked at internet use in all 77 of Chicago’s neighborhoods—the only study to pull neighborhood-level data—they found that some 70 percent of the city has home broadband access. “But this obscures the patterns in high-poverty neighborhoods,” she said, “where entire communities had no access at all.” Cities like Hartford, CT; Laredo, TX; New Haven, CT; Lawton, OK; Rochester, NY; and Cleveland, OH, according to Mossberger’s research, all have populations where fewer than 60 percent have broadband at home.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission classified broadband internet as a public utility, putting it on par with water and electricity for American households. The FCC recently approved a plan to subsidize these costs, which currently helps about 12 million people. But Aguh says the full impact of that decision is “yet to be determined,” and it’s a move that undoubtedly looks more symbolic to poorer residents in urban environments who still can’t get to a computer, pay for one, or afford the monthly cost of a data plan, and need a job right now.

Eighty four percent of Americans have either broadband at home or a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center. There are numerous initiatives in process to get more states connected via collecting data about where the gaps are and plugging them in, as well as the FCC’s national broadband plan to improve the internet service of the nation as a whole, but Aguh says access is only one part of the puzzle.

“Access is great; adoption is better,” he says. “Digital inclusion is a three-legged stool,” Aguh says. “The first leg is internet service the family can afford. The second is a device—a laptop, tablet, or desktop they can afford. Third is the digital literacy skills to make the most of the first two.”

The ubiquity of the smartphone has further complicated the issue, Aguh says, by making it seem like those issues may have been solved. Pew Research found that 13 percent of Americans are smartphone-only, meaning they have no broadband connection at home. They tend to be lower-income workers who make less than $30,000 annually. They are also disproportionately minorities. While only four percent of whites are smartphone-dependent, 12 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latinos rely only on phones for internet access.

The majority of job postings are now online, and every part of digitally pursuing work requires computers and access—nearly 80 percent of job seekers who looked for employment in the last two years used the internet, more than those who leaned on personal connections or networking, according to Pew.

Aguh says that it’s hard enough to apply for a well-paying job online, but even at entry-level positions like fast food services, gone are the days of turning in a paper application. We spend a lot of time with tech companies and we ask, ‘If someone wanted to apply to you via paper, how would they do it?’”Aguh said. “And they say, ‘I don’t even know how they would do it.’ If you walk into McDonald’s, they will ask you to go to the website to apply.”In Mossberger’s research, even those communities in Chicago with only mobile access or very little access of any kind, there were “still fairly high rates of people looking for jobs online,” she said. They just supplement mobile phone use. “They use public access. They go to friends and neighbors houses, they try to get access however they can.

It’s more common for a lower-income worker to use their smartphone for a job application, but this creates its own set of problems with data caps, filling out lengthy applications online, and writing cover letters or resumes on a phone. “I challenge anyone to do their resume or apply for a high-paying job on their smartphone,” Aguh says. “They just aren’t designed to do that.” They are also disproportionately minorities. While only four percent of whites are smartphone-dependent, 12 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latinos rely only on phones for internet access.

But it’s more costly when families use smartphones for all their internet needs. While Pew’s research cites the upfront cost of computers and broadband service as a barrier, Augh frequently works with families who end up paying hundreds of dollars in overage using smartphones as their primary source of connectivity. Studies show half of smartphone-dependent users have canceled contracts due to lack of funds.

To fill in the blanks, various libraries and nonprofits around the country are launching community services based around connectivity. offering services in cities around the country. Chicago’s Smart Communities launched a successful pilot to increase digital access in low-income neighborhoods, and when those families were connected, Mossberger said they evaluated the program, and were able to see the types of information the newly connected families sought out online—jobs, health information, and mass transit information. In Greenfield, Mass., where some 40 percent of the residents didn’t have access to the internet, the town built out its own network.

Mossberger says a number of internet providers offer programs that give qualifying families basic broadband for $10—Comcast has Internet Essentials, Cox Communications offers Connect to Compete. But they don’t reach everyone. “There are real gaps in that because the programs are only available to households with children who qualify for free or reduced cost school lunches,” she said. “There were issues in Chicago around Internet Essentials—if people owed bills from past bills for cable then they couldn’t get the program.” also does grassroots work to get families affordable internet, access to refurbished or low-cost devices, and free digital literacy training to triage the problem from every angle. They do grassroots work in communities where families have no phones to text them or computers to visit their site—churches, football games, schools, grocery stores—to help families get access.

“I’ve never seen a family—particularly with children—ever say ‘I don’t want it,’” Aguh says of his encounters in low-income communties. “If you were to go back a hundred years, and ask people if they need electricity, families without it might have said they didn’t need it, because they’d lived without it. But once their neighbors had it, they said ‘Oh, I can work at night, I can keep my family warm in the winter?’ Seeing it changes your perception.”