IT Infrastructure

More Families Have Internet Access. So Why Hasn’t the Digital Divide Begun to Close?

By Alyson Klein — June 24, 2021 3 min read
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Lower-income families’ access to the internet has soared over the past six years. But that doesn’t mean that the digital divide is any closer to closing, concludes a nationally representative survey released by Rutgers University this week.

Among such families with children ages 6 to 13, access to non-dial-up home internet services rose from 64 percent in 2015 to 84 percent in 2021, the survey found. And some of the biggest increases came among populations that were most in need when the university conducted similar research back in 2015.

For instance, 48 percent of families living below the poverty level, a subset of the overall sample of parents with incomes below the national median, had non-dial-up internet service in 2015. By this year, that proportion had increased nearly 30 percentage points, to 76 percent. Similarly, Black households went from 64 percent connectivity to 95 percent during that time. And access among families headed by immigrant Hispanics jumped from 35 percent to 75 percent.

But even lower-income families with devices and non-dial-up connections still have trouble getting online. For instance, 56 percent of families in the Rutgers survey say their connection is too slow. And 18 percent say their service was cut off at least once in the past year because they couldn’t cover the cost.

“The good news is that access has skyrocketed” since 2015, said Vikki Katz, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers and a co-author of the report. “The bad news is that the proportion of families who are underconnected hasn’t moved.”

The survey is based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 parents of children age 3 to 13, all with household incomes below the national median for families in the United States. (That’s about $75,000 a year.)

Just having a device isn’t the whole story

While lower-income families may have a device and some way of getting online, there may be other issues that impede their ability to make full use of that technology.

For instance, among families who only have a smartphone or tablet for internet access, 34 percent hit the data limits in their plan at least once in the past year, interrupting their connection. And more than a quarter—28 percent—say it’s tough to get on the devices when they need them because so many people in the household are sharing. What’s more, of those with a computer at home, 59 percent said it does not work properly or runs too slowly.

That has implications for how policymakers and school districts talk about inequity in internet access, Katz said.

“Maybe we’ve been measuring the digital divide wrong. Connectivity is a spectrum,” she said. To get a good gauge of where families stand, districts should ask more than just yes or no questions when surveying them about internet access.

The survey found a major uptick during the pandemic in parents’ involvement in their children’s education, likely because so many parents and guardians helped with online learning. Two-thirds of parents reported that they now know more about their child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning than they did before the pandemic. And 43 percent said they were more confident in communicating with their child’s teachers than they were before the crisis.

But parents also are most concerned about their child’s socioemotional well-being compared to other issues next school year. Half of the parents surveyed whose children will be entering 1st grade or higher said that was their top priority, compared to just 30 percent who said they cared most about academics.

“There’s an opportunity to rework the terrain on which low-income families communicate with schools,” Katz said. “I hope we don’t squander it.”

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