Domestic Affairs

Facing America’s Post-Pandemic Digital Divide

With the spring semester drawing to a close, the University of Texas is wrapping up a full year of remote learning. After experiencing the struggles and benefits of remote learning, academic institutions and employers alike are weighing the benefits of continuing online operations. In fact, 29% of 1,022 working professionals surveyed said that they would quit their jobs if they couldn’t continue working from home. With such a large portion of the workforce fully adjusting to working from home, it is unsurprising that many employees now prefer the freedom that comes from working remotely. According to a Stanford study, 42% of the U.S. workforce has been working remotely full-time during the pandemic. No longer solely reserved for sick days, working from home is now a feasible long-term employment option: workspace flexibility has become a legitimate consideration for an employment deal. However, from some employees’ perspective, continuing to operate online may not just be inconvenient, but impossible.

A necessity for working remotely is access to technology. Requiring reliable, high-speed internet access for employment would disproportionately impact lower-income communities. A study conducted by The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that, on average, 17% of people in low-income households do not have access to internet services. The study also found discrepancies between metropolitan and remote areas, and that more than one in six people living below the poverty line in 2019 were without internet. In Texas, the percentage of people in poverty without broadband access is 18%, a statistic comparatively higher than the other states. 

Race and economic levels are inherently tied to how easy it is to access the internet. The same study by The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that Asians and Whites are most likely to have broadband access while Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were least likely. Former member of the Federal Communications Commission, Mignon Clyburn, attributes current racial and socio-economic divides to historical redlining practices. In an interview with Clyburn, she provides insight as to why race and poverty play a critical role in access to the internet. Urban communities, whose inhabitants are majority POC, have been subjected to redlining, resulting in a lack of certain technologies necessary for reliable infrastructure. Because of this, it costs internet companies more per square mile to establish dependable internet. Instead, companies opt for the cheaper option of satellite coverage, which does not provide fully robust service. Because internet companies do not see expanding broadband coverage as a worthwhile investment, these areas without reliable infrastructure are subjected to a digital divide. 

“If you were to go in rural areas where there is less infrastructure, less density, it is not uncommon for you to pay $150 per month for less-than-robust internet access,” Clyburn explains. “There are gross disparities when it comes to more affluent neighborhoods and more dense neighborhoods than there are for lower-income and rural communities.” 

Limited internet access has undoubtedly impacted lower-income communities during the pandemic, and economists predict that the long-term economic fallout of the pandemic will continue to disproportionately affect lower-income communities. Last March, economists from the University of Chicago, Jonathan Dingel and Brent Neiman, conducted a study about the long-term impacts of the pandemic regarding those whose jobs were unable to transition to working remotely. 

Together, the two professors calculated that out of 800 U.S. occupations, only 37% could be done remotely. The study demonstrated a direct correlation between the jobs best suited to work remotely and jobs that are well-paid, mostly white-collar occupations in big cities. For example, while 97% of legal work and 88% of business and finance jobs can be done remotely, this holds true for only 3% of jobs in transport and 1% in farming, fisheries and forestry. The 37% of jobs that were more remote-friendly are also better paid – accounting for 46% of the wages in the study. A study conducted by Juan Palomino, an economist at Oxford, affirmed the correlation between remote working options and higher earnings in Europe. Yet again, those with privilege face less of a threat from the lasting effects from COVID-19.

Ultimately, the economic burden of the pandemic will disproportionately fall on the people and countries with the poorest economies. Era Dalba-Norris, an economist at the International Monetary Fund, extended Dingel and Neiman’s research to a survey of workers in 35 countries. She and her colleagues discovered that, even within the same occupations, “considerably fewer jobs could go remote in less advanced economies than developed ones” (BBC). Without the safety net of a stable working class, the risk of economic collapse is significantly higher. Wealthier cities and countries can sustain their economies even during lockdown through a safety net of established infrastructure and pre-existing wealth; the stimulus checks provided through the American Rescue Plan will allow American taxpayers to spur the economy forward by boosting consumption. However, poorer countries without an established ‘safety net’ do not have this luxury. Unsurprisingly, technology availability and a stable economy are not mutually exclusive: a major factor in the stability of a country’s economy is technology and internet accessibility. According to BBC, less than 50% of the world has a computer at home, and only about 60% has access to the internet. With such limited access to the internet, many poorer economies are facing severe economic scarring without the option of remote work. 

Palomino also found in his study that access to higher education is the biggest factor in whether or not one can work remotely. Higher education has a direct correlation with one’s earning potential, and the pandemic has further reinforced this relationship. “Looking into the future, I would say the impact of education, which has always been key, is going to be even greater,” Palomino said. With this in mind, students’ struggles with online school may lead to more detrimental long-term consequences. 

Students have experienced their own difficulties with remote learning. At the beginning of the school year, 73% of the one hundred largest U.S. school districts chose to continue remote learning, affecting over 8 million students; about half of U.S. students attended school virtually during this school year. However, not every student had the privilege to easily accommodate this transition. The switch to online school has resulted in thousands of laptops on back order and tens of thousands of students missing school. Appropriate technology is less likely to be provided to low-income and minority children who are more likely to be learning remotely. Limited access to the internet is a double-edged sword: While students in rural areas cannot connect to an internet service fast-enough to allow for video conferencing, children in urban districts cannot afford to subscribe to a high-speed connection. This digital divide is not new and has been a recurring issue in the education field. Previously referred to as the “homework gap,” some students were unable to complete their homework because of the increasing amount of assignments required to be completed online. The students without internet were struggling already, but the transition to online school has made the digital divide impossible to ignore. A report from the 2018 census data revealed that nearly seventeen million children lived in homes without high speed internet, and more than 7 million did not have computers at home. 

The limitations of online school will result in severe learning loss of American students across the country. A team of researchers at Stanford concluded that the average American student lost a third of a year to a full year’s worth of learning in reading, and about three quarters of a year to more than a year’s worth of math since the initial shutdown in March 2020. Thus far, this learning loss has not been accounted for: neither of the two coronavirus relief bills have addressed this issue, and schools have resolved to take matters into their own hands. However, for lower-income schools, they do not have the options nor opportunities to provide for their students in the same way. 

Ultimately, not one, but two generations are reeling from digital inequity exasperated by the pandemic. However, grade-school Generation Z could be hit the hardest by the long-term effects of the digital divide. Several studies have proposed a direct relationship between elementary academic success and the pursuit of higher education, especially regarding reading proficiency. One particular study found that, in a pool of 26,000 students, less than 20% of students who were in the bottom quarter of national reading achievement in third grade went on to attend college. In contrast, nearly 60% of the students who were in the top quarter of national reading achievement enrolled in college. As college is increasingly more important to secure a job, especially demonstrated through the pandemic, underprivileged students may be subjected to limited job opportunities in the future because they did not have the technology necessary to receive an online education. Something as simple as broadband access and proper technology could potentially limit the futures of thousands of students.        

Not everyone has the privilege of making the choice to work from home, with the reality of slim availability for remote-working jobs and low access to the internet. Students are facing a similar issue that more than likely will inhibit their future opportunities, including a chance at higher education. Before any business, educational institutions, or geographic communities make a permanent switch to remote work, it is important to consider those who otherwise might get left behind.

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