On Monday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order offering more online options to Americans for a range of essential government services. The White House released a statement saying this will help citizens avoid the complex “web of Government websites, offices, and phone numbers” they’re used to when trying to accomplish routine procedures like getting retirement benefits or renewing passports.
The 17 government agencies affected will become more streamlined in a range of ways. Disaster survivors will be able to apply for federal assistance by uploading documentation through smartphones. Tax filers will be able to receive automatic direct deposit refunds. Student loan borrowers, veterans receiving benefits, and low-income Americans will all have single websites and payment portals rather than juggling multiple websites and logins. Americans changing their address and names will be able to do so online with less documentation. The Fish and Wildlife Service will also provide more transactions online. But while taking steps to modernize government services will offer convenience to many Americans, there are still inequities that prevent millions of low-income people from gaining access to the internet at all—and that could prevent some of them from obtaining the services they need.
The pandemic highlighted the necessity of internet access for remote schooling and work, especially for those with disabilities. Last year, BroadbandNow, an organization that publishes research on internet access in America, reported that more than 42 million Americans still lack access to broadband internet, and Black and brown folks are at a significant disadvantage. In their 2021 issue brief, “Expanding Black Broadband in the Rural South,” Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Black economic policy think tank, reported that about 38% of Black Americans in the South don’t have internet in their homes.
EveryoneOn, a nonprofit organization with the mission of increasing internet access to underserved communities, published a report this month that found that nearly one in five American households with annual incomes of less than $50,000 lost internet connectivity due to the pandemic, and 40% of households cannot afford to pay for high-speed internet at all.
Otherwise called the “homework gap,” Pew Research Center reports this disparity is significantly more pronounced for Black and Latinx students. A 2018 survey by Pew concluded one in five teens aged 13 to 17 could not complete homework due to lack of reliable internet or computers at home, making it even more difficult for students of marginalized identities to keep up.
Last year, Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining safety for children in the digital world, reported that one in four American students still lack adequate internet access, and that 400,000 teachers can’t teach remotely because of inadequate internet.
Voqal is the nonprofit collective of educational broadband service licensees behind Mobile Citizen, a low-cost internet option for low-income Americans, nonprofits, and educational organizations. Mark Colwell, director of telecommunications policy at Voqal, says the Digital Equity Act passed earlier this year—which is part of the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act—will provide major support to states to bring up digital literacy.
“There’s plenty of people who don’t own, don’t know how to use, or don’t know how to troubleshoot their computers when something goes wrong,” Colwell said. The $2.75 billion provided by the Digital Equity Act will help states develop plans for digital inclusion.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
Angela Siefer is the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, an organization working to bridge the digital divide through policy and research. She also says November’s Infrastructure Act shows dedication to increasing connectivity across the U.S. by extending funding to programs like the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.
“It’s not necessarily that the government is making it harder for folks who are offline, but that the policy trajectory has already been heading in this direction,” Siefer said. “It shows the necessity of the investments in the Infrastructure Act, and we need to make sure we keep investing and helping folks get connected.”
Siefer also noted that there are corporations that have been working to bridge the gap in digital access. In rural areas across the country, Microsoft’s Airband Initiative and Wisper Internet are working to get Americans connected. The FCC has also rolled out the Emergency Connectivity Fund and Lifeline as supports for low-income Americans.
Increasingly, access to the internet is more of a daily necessity. Biden’s most recent executive order makes it clear that we must continue to decrease the digital divide.