Can the Government's Plan to Expand Internet Access Lift People out of Poverty?

Only 48 percent of U.S. families earning less than $25,000 a year have Internet access at home.
A student in San Diego works at a computer. (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)
Jun 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Brooklyn Lilly lives in a cabin in the woods of Summers County, West Virginia. Last Friday, the 18-year-old graduated from high school with hopes of studying graphic design through a Florida art school’s online program. There’s one problem: She can’t enroll in online courses because there’s no broadband Internet access near her home, which is deep in the Appalachian Mountains, historically one of America’s most isolated and poorest regions. “We pay $70 a month just for satellite Internet, and it doesn’t work,” Lilly’s mother, Tammie, told TakePart.

In much of America and the Western world, the Internet is an essential element of business and life. We walk down the street Skyping with clients on the other side of the planet. We transfer money between bank accounts via phone apps. We post photos of ourselves on Facebook and Instagram. So, in this Web-saturated moment, it’s easy to forget that in parts of Appalachia and even in some of our major cities, the Internet is a luxury. Only 48 percent of U.S. families earning less than $25,000 a year have Internet access at home. Less than half of black, Latino, and elderly people have Internet access at home.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a major initiative to provide Internet service to low-income Americans. The proposal is an expansion of Lifeline, a $1.7 billion Reagan-era program that helps more than 12 million low-income households receive subsidized phone service. The commission is expected to approve the proposal in the fall. The expansion reflects the Obama administration’s view that expanding Internet access is a key element in driving the economy. In January, President Obama announced the creation of the Broadband Opportunity Council, which includes representatives from several government agencies. “Americans need broadband to keep a job, as companies increasingly require basic digital literacy skills," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in announcing the proposal.

For advocates working for digital inclusion, Wheeler’s announcement brings the promise of uplifting low-income families across the country. “The FCC’s proposal is a huge deal,” Steven Renderos, national organizer for the Center for Media Justice, which advocates for racial justice and economic equity through media access, told TakePart. “It’s tough to overstate just how important the Lifeline program is to meeting the communications needs of our time.”

To understand where the program’s expansion could help, consider local libraries. At Renderos’ library in St. Paul, Minnesota, every public computer is constantly being used. “Librarians have become de facto digital literacy practitioners—helping people fill out résumés, set up email, and apply for jobs online,” Renderos said. “This kind of public access is not sufficient.”

One potential challenge, advocates say, is convincing private Internet service providers that it’s in their interest to create partnerships with governments to provide subsidized access to low-income people. Enter EveryoneOn, a Washington, D.C.–based organization that aims to convince companies such as Sprint and Cox Communications to offer subsidized broadband service in exchange for exposure to a new customer base. EveryoneOn’s CEO, Zach Leverenz, says the organization has helped enroll thousands of people in such programs.

“Broadband access is a necessary and essential tool,” Leverenz told TakePart. “This is about our own competitiveness as a nation in the digital economy.” Indeed, studies have found that increasing broadband access can grow a country’s GDP and increase its efficiency. Broadband adoption in rural counties has been linked to rapid income growth and lower unemployment rates. Another study estimates that the loss of earning potential and the cost of inefficiency owing to lack of broadband access costs the U.S. more than $32 billion annually, demonstrating that it’s not just families like Brooklyn Lilly’s that bear the brunt of being disconnected.

Schools frequently give students homework assignments that must be completed online. B. David Rogers, the executive director of Mission West Virginia, which coordinates digital literacy initiatives across the state, said young people travel far from home—hotel parking lots, coffee shops, fast-food restaurants—just to find a place with Internet service so they can do their homework. Often, it’s being done on a borrowed laptop. “They stay until they get kicked out or their battery dies,” he said.

Gina Juarez, a Fresno, California, resident whose family receives subsidized phone service through the FCC’s Lifeline Program, is hoping the government’s proposal succeeds. When her husband was job hunting, he spent hours searching for public places with strong Internet access so that he could complete applications—the vast majority of which were online. Eventually, he found a job. “Without reliable and affordable phone service, and a broadband connection to communicate with the rest of the world, I don’t know how long he would have been looking for employment,” Juarez said, or “how much more we would’ve gone in debt—or even if we would have a home anymore."