If you’re reading this, you probably take the Internet for granted. It’s on your phone and in your home. But some 75 million Americans aren’t so lucky: They’re completely off the digital grid.
According to census data, one in four households across the country have no web access at home or on their mobile devices. And in some big cities, it’s far worse. In places like Detroit, New Orleans and Miami, about 40 percent of people aren’t connected, according to the group Connect Your Community 2.0.
“African Americans, Hispanic and Latino Americans and seniors, especially minority seniors, are really disconnected,” said Zach Leverenz, CEO of the nonprofit EveryoneOn. “The one constant among all those segments of the population that aren’t connected is income. If you make less than $35,000 a year, chances are you’re not connected.”
Life offline is more difficult than ever before. You need the Internet to apply for jobs, find housing, and access many government services. Even elementary school students have to complete much of their homework online.
That’s why Christina Morua, 29, and her four kids race to get to the public library every afternoon.
Morua and her kids used to have Internet at home, until she separated from her husband and had to start from scratch. She first told her story to the Miami Herald a few months ago, and she says it’s only gotten worse since then. She’s now in nursing school, and all her classwork is online too.
Googling something takes on a whole new meaning.
“My son will ask me, ‘Hey Mom, who was the second president of the United States?’ I’m like, hold on, let me write that down, so when we get to the library tomorrow, I’ll remember to Google it,” she said. “It’s hard!”
Public libraries try to meet the need, but resources are stretched thin. To get online, Morua has to reserve a computer for each family member. They’ve had to wait as long as two hours. Once they’re on the computer, a countdown clock ticks down the 60 minutes until their session ends or the library closes.
As a result, the kids are having trouble in school.
“They’re all getting like C’s and D’s right now, simply because of undone homework,” she said. “It’s very frustrating. And the teachers, they look at me like, ‘Why aren’t you guys doing the homework?'”
President Obama wants to broaden Internet access, making it a key issue ahead of his State of the Union address.
“I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community,” Obama said in Tuesday’s address.
The President has laid out a plan to expand rural broadband access and encourage greater competition between Internet service providers.
“Today tens of millions of Americans have only one choice when it comes to next-generation broadband,” Obama said last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he highlighted the community broadband program that allows residents to access a gigabit fiber optic network.
Nonprofits have also stepped in to help close the gap. EveryoneOn works with partners to provide free or discounted service to low-income families. And public libraries in New York and elsewhere are now checking out Wi-Fi hotspots for patrons to take home.
“The bottom line is if we can’t make this tool affordable for every American, then we’re really doing a disservice to those individuals but also the country, when we think about a technology-enabled future,” Leverenz said.
But for Morua, her kids and many others, the options are still very limited.
“The honest truth is, even if we got low-income Internet, we’d have to buy a computer, which is expensive. We’d have to buy software,” she said. “When you don’t make enough money to begin with, it’s just not priority. When it comes next to food or gas for your car, you’re like, ‘No, I’ll struggle with the library,’ because you have no other choice.”
Credit: Carlos Navarrete and Geneva Sands