The Emerging Digital Poverty Line

Too many Americans have long lived in communities without reliable access to the internet and suffered significant social and economic costs as a result. But the pandemic has turned this growing divide into a crisis almost overnight, as work, education, health care and many other facets of daily life increasingly depend on online connectivity. Now, millions are at risk of falling below what can only be described as a digital poverty line – and the need to treat this dire situation as a human rights issue has never been greater.

Today, about 42 million Americans do not have access to high-speed broadband internet. A disproportionate share are people of color. One in 3 American Indian, Black and Latino families with children lack a high-speed internet connection at home — a rate of disconnection more than 50 percent higher than that of white families.

These families can’t take classes or submit schoolwork from home. They can’t schedule telemedicine visits with their doctors, or access digital health portals or look up nutrition information. They can’t work online, bank online, apply for jobs online, reskill or start a company online. And the longer these inequities endure, the further their shot at prosperity recedes.

The cycle of digital poverty is one of the most serious threats facing people of color and underserved communities across the nation. But it can be addressed — if America embraces four attainable goals.

First, we need to make high-speed internet available to everyone, everywhere — no matter where they live or who they are. Second, we need to make internet affordable. No one should be priced out of the future — or the present. Third, we need to democratize access to the hardware and software people need to take full advantage of the internet’s capabilities. Fourth, we need a maintenance ecosystem — digital educators, designers, repair workers, and accessibility consultants — to ensure improvements last long into the future. This can create jobs too.

If we achieve these goals, we could transform a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. The benefits of connection, just like the harms of disconnection, are compounding. Providing broadband to families on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program would dramatically improve the quality and accessibility of care and reduce its cost. And, according to the National Urban League, it also would close 70 percent of the homework gap — the 17 million students who don’t have internet at home.

Democratizing broadband access would also dramatically upgrade our global competitiveness by bringing tens of millions of Americans more fully into the digital economy. This would include a large number of African Americans, helping us take a major step toward closing the racial wealth gap — a goal that, when achieved, could add $1.5 trillion to America’s gross domestic product over 10 years.

There has been a groundswell of support for rapid action. The National Urban League just released the Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion. Named after legendary 19th-century Black inventor Lewis Latimer — the son of slaves who helped draft the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone — the plan is among the most comprehensive how-to guides ever assembled on combating digital poverty. While the league’s 200-page plan, developed in conjunction with policy experts from the team that wrote the 2010 U.S. National Broadband Plan, is the most thorough, other organizations — such as Common Sense MediaVerizonthe Benton Foundation and Civil Rights Table — have offered their own recommendations. The particulars may vary, but all call for bold action.

The Latimer Plan has broad support across the civil rights community — including from the Conference of National Black Churches, the National Action Network and the Multicultural Media, Telecom, and Internet Council — and corporate America. The Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs representing roughly 200 of the nation’s largest companies, applauded the release of the Latimer Plan. Promisingly, at a congressional hearing on May 6, 2021, members of both parties expressed support for targeted subsidies to close the availability and affordability gaps.

More than half a century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. implored the nation to prioritize economic opportunity for people of color. Last summer’s protests, sparked by the murder of George Floyd and rampant police brutality against Black people, became the largest civil rights movement in American history partly because our nation has failed to answer that call.

In the next few months, we’ll have a rare chance to invest in and empower communities of color.

The White House and Congress are now considering a sweeping infrastructure bill. In addition to long-overdue investments in America’s roads, bridges, airports and energy grid, this legislation must ensure that all Americans have the digital infrastructure they need to succeed: high-speed broadband.

If done correctly, as outlined by the Latimer Plan, this would represent the single largest investment in racial equity in modern American history. For example, if six states — Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana — were to use money already appropriated to increase broadband availability and adoption, it would help close the digital divide for more than half of all Black people in America. While the federal government has allocated $10 billion for COVID-related low-income broadband support, we need a permanent solution.

From our nation’s leading civil rights organizations to its largest corporations to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, there is rare consensus that broadband must be brought to all Americans — and that the infrastructure bill is the best and likely only legislative vehicle on the horizon for doing so.

The fierce urgency of now has met the political opportunity of a lifetime. This moment will not come again — so we must seize it.


Robert F. Smith is the founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners.

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