Where the Digital Divide Is the Worst

Low-income Americans still connect to the internet at far lower rates than wealthier households.
by | September 7, 2017
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Despite the continued proliferation of the internet and new digital devices, many low-income communities still lack internet access.

Slightly less than half of all households with incomes under $20,000 reported having internet access in the Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey. By comparison, about 93 percent of wealthier households with annual incomes exceeding $75,000 were connected.

A more recent Pew Research Center survey depicts similar disparities. It found only 53 percent of adults with incomes under $30,000 had home broadband access, compared with 80 percent of those with incomes between $30,000 and $100,000.

The severity of this digital divide varies across regions. Only a quarter of households in the lowest-income bracket (less than $20,000 annually) were connected to the internet in the Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas, metro area -- the lowest share nationally. Similarly, just a third of low-income households reported access in the Shreveport-Bossier City, La., and Augusta, Ga., metro areas.

Places where low-income households are least connected are most common throughout rural regions of the South and Appalachia. Higher costs of living might explain differences in other regions of the country, where housing or utility expenses leave households with little income to spare. Demographics further contribute to regional disparities as families of Hispanic immigrants have lower internet adoption rates, as do heads of households over age 65.

In a dozen metro areas we reviewed with at least 100,000 households, the lowest-income bracket was connected at roughly half the rate of all other households. These included the larger metro areas of Louisville, Ky.; Memphis, Tenn.; and New Orleans-Metairie, La.

 

 

One metro area where the digital divide is particularly evident is the northern Louisiana region comprising Shreveport and Bossier City. Bill Robertson of the Louisiana Public Service Commission District 5 attributes much of the low internet adoption issues among poorer households to affordability barriers, although some pockets of the region remain underserved by service providers. A possible contributing factor, he says, is the high electric bills some residents living in older homes are saddled with.

“We have some grinding areas of poverty in the Shreveport area, and I’d assume these households are having difficulty paying the rent and putting groceries on the table,” says Robertson.

Meanwhile, metro areas where low-income homes are most connected tend to be anchored by colleges or universities. Nearly three-quarters of low-income households in the Boulder, Colo., area reported broadband internet access in the Census survey, for example.

A number of factors might explain why a household isn’t connected to the internet. A national survey of low-income households conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a think tank focusing on education and digital media, cited cost as the top reason. Another 13 percent of respondents reported they didn’t think they needed internet. Additionally, in some isolated parts of the country, high-speed internet still isn’t available. Or, if providers do offer service, connections are often too unreliable to justify the expense.

Earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai called for the creation of gigabit opportunity zones in economically challenged areas. The proposal provides tax incentives to fund private-sector broadband development while requiring states and localities to adopt “streamlined, broadband deployment-friendly” policies.

The FCC's Lifeline program provides discounts to individuals with incomes 135 percent below the federal poverty line. It allocates subscribers a $9.25 monthly discount and sets minimum broadband service standards. But the vast majority of eligible Americans don’t sign up. The Cooney Center survey reported only 6 percent of households below 185 percent of the federal poverty level reported ever participating in any type of program providing discounted service.

Most Americans connect to the internet via multiple devices, such as computers, smartphones or tablets. Cable modems ranked as the top connection type reported in the Census survey.

But for an increasing number of low-income Americans, smartphones serve as their only means of connecting. Poorer Americans were nearly twice as likely to use smartphones to obtain information about prospective employment than those with household incomes exceeding $75,000, according to another Pew Research Center survey. Similarly, about a third of low-income individuals reported using smartphones to submit job applications, compared to only 7 percent of wealthier households.

Research suggests barriers to education could arise when young people are limited to only mobile broadband. They’ll typically spend more time online if they have a computer at home with internet access, and many software programs are unavailable on mobile devices.

 

Metro Area Broadband by Income Group

This table shows the share of households with home broadband internet connections in all metro areas with at least 100,000 households.

Metro Area Household Income Less Than $20K With Broadband Margin of Error Household Income More Than $20K With Broadband
Brownsville-Harlingen, TX 25.2% 3.7% 62.6%
Shreveport-Bossier City, LA 32.5% 4.0% 75.8%
Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC 36.0% 3.5% 74.8%
Jackson, MS 36.3% 3.5% 72.9%
Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, NC 36.9% 5.0% 77.4%
Lynchburg, VA 37.0% 5.4% 72.5%
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX 37.1% 3.6% 68.5%
Mobile, AL 38.0% 3.5% 73.7%
Memphis, TN-MS-AR 38.2% 2.6% 75.8%
Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL 38.2% 3.5% 67.1%
El Paso, TX 38.4% 3.5% 75.7%
Peoria, IL 39.0% 4.5% 78.9%
Fort Smith, AR-OK 39.3% 4.2% 72.3%
Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 39.4% 3.2% 80.0%
New Orleans-Metairie, LA 39.9% 2.3% 78.6%
Flint, MI 40.1% 3.4% 77.6%
Spartanburg, SC 40.1% 5.0% 76.2%
Knoxville, TN 40.4% 3.0% 79.1%
Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, TN-VA 40.7% 4.3% 76.7%
Winston-Salem, NC 41.2% 3.9% 79.6%
Greensboro-High Point, NC 41.2% 3.5% 71.2%
Greenville-Anderson-Mauldin, SC 41.9% 3.0% 77.8%
Duluth, MN-WI 42.1% 4.1% 77.8%
Wichita, KS 42.2% 3.5% 78.8%
Birmingham-Hoover, AL 42.4% 2.5% 78.3%
Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, OH-PA 42.4% 3.6% 77.7%
Charleston-North Charleston, SC 42.4% 3.5% 77.4%
Rockford, IL 42.9% 5.4% 82.8%
Roanoke, VA 42.9% 5.5% 77.5%
Bakersfield, CA 42.9% 4.1% 77.0%
Albuquerque, NM 43.1% 2.5% 77.1%
Columbia, SC 43.3% 3.2% 78.8%
Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX 43.4% 4.9% 72.0%
York-Hanover, PA 43.5% 4.9% 77.7%
Columbus, GA-AL 43.5% 4.4% 77.7%
Springfield, MO 43.5% 4.7% 75.4%
Scranton--Wilkes-Barre--Hazleton, PA 43.7% 3.1% 78.1%
San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 43.9% 2.3% 80.7%
Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL 44.5% 4.9% 80.5%
Visalia-Porterville, CA 44.5% 5.1% 74.5%
Chattanooga, TN-GA 44.8% 3.6% 80.2%
Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO 44.8% 4.5% 67.3%
Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ 45.0% 3.9% 83.6%
Lafayette, LA 45.0% 4.7% 81.0%
Corpus Christi, TX 45.1% 5.4% 78.0%
South Bend-Mishawaka, IN-MI 45.1% 5.0% 77.8%
Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin, FL 45.1% 7.3% 77.1%
Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY 45.2% 2.5% 79.8%
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI 45.5% 1.4% 82.0%
Baton Rouge, LA 45.6% 3.5% 83.3%
Lancaster, PA 45.8% 5.3% 77.5%
Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin, TN 45.9% 2.8% 82.6%
Killeen-Temple, TX 45.9% 4.5% 82.6%
Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH 46.0% 4.3% 77.4%
Richmond, VA 46.2% 2.8% 83.1%
Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, AR 46.3% 3.7% 76.5%
Asheville, NC 46.6% 4.8% 83.9%
St. Louis, MO-IL 46.6% 2.2% 82.2%
Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent, FL 46.9% 5.4% 85.4%
Huntsville, AL 46.9% 4.9% 85.2%
Cleveland-Elyria, OH 47.1% 2.0% 82.3%
Gulfport-Biloxi-Pascagoula, MS 47.2% 5.6% 77.7%
Lubbock, TX 47.3% 5.8% 75.8%
Pittsburgh, PA 47.5% 1.5% 82.2%
Utica-Rome, NY 47.7% 4.6% 79.7%
Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA 47.9% 4.7% 82.2%
Evansville, IN-KY 48.0% 5.1% 79.6%
Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI 48.1% 2.6% 83.9%
Montgomery, AL 48.1% 4.9% 82.9%
Boise City, ID 48.6% 5.2% 81.9%
Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ 48.8% 5.6% 84.9%
Toledo, OH 48.8% 3.4% 81.6%
Indianapolis-Carmel-Anderson, IN 48.9% 2.1% 82.3%
Syracuse, NY 49.0% 3.1% 84.1%
Springfield, MA 49.0% 3.2% 83.5%
New Haven-Milford, CT 49.2% 3.5% 85.3%
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 49.2% 1.7% 82.3%
Fresno, CA 49.2% 3.5% 80.0%
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 49.3% 1.3% 83.4%
Stockton-Lodi, CA 49.4% 3.4% 81.1%
Providence-Warwick, RI-MA 49.5% 2.8% 84.4%
Fort Wayne, IN 49.5% 4.2% 81.3%
Tulsa, OK 49.6% 1.8% 81.5%
Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD 49.7% 2.3% 85.2%
Reading, PA 49.8% 4.4% 84.2%
Rochester, NY 50.0% 2.6% 83.2%
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 50.1% 1.1% 83.9%
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 50.1% 1.4% 82.7%
Oklahoma City, OK 50.1% 2.7% 80.2%
Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT 50.3% 3.1% 86.1%
Salinas, CA 50.3% 6.3% 80.7%
Canton-Massillon, OH 50.4% 3.9% 83.3%
Kansas City, MO-KS 50.5% 2.3% 84.8%
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 50.5% 1.3% 84.7%
Dayton, OH 50.5% 3.6% 83.5%
Ocala, FL 50.6% 5.6% 77.3%
North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL 50.7% 4.1% 81.4%
Portland-South Portland, ME 50.8% 4.5% 87.6%
Salisbury, MD-DE 51.3% 4.8% 77.4%
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 51.4% 0.8% 85.3%
Cedar Rapids, IA 51.6% 6.7% 80.4%
Raleigh, NC 51.7% 3.9% 88.1%
Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, NC-SC 51.7% 2.2% 85.1%
Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN 52.4% 1.8% 85.3%
Akron, OH 52.4% 3.1% 81.7%
Columbus, OH 52.5% 2.3% 86.5%
Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY 52.6% 3.5% 85.3%
Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI 52.7% 3.9% 84.1%
Trenton, NJ 52.9% 5.7% 87.1%
Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA 52.9% 3.4% 85.4%
Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA 52.9% 5.2% 83.5%
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 53.1% 1.5% 85.3%
Reno, NV 53.6% 5.2% 86.3%
Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, SC-NC 53.6% 4.4% 84.9%
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 53.7% 0.8% 84.9%
Erie, PA 53.7% 4.5% 83.5%
Fayetteville, NC 53.7% 4.2% 82.7%
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV 54.0% 1.9% 83.7%
Norwich-New London, CT 54.1% 7.1% 85.9%
Worcester, MA-CT 54.2% 3.7% 85.7%
Jacksonville, FL 54.3% 3.0% 84.5%
Lexington-Fayette, KY 54.3% 4.4% 83.2%
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 54.4% 1.9% 83.9%
Urban Honolulu, HI 54.6% 3.9% 86.7%
Modesto, CA 54.6% 4.6% 84.9%
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 55.0% 1.6% 85.2%
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 55.2% 2.1% 88.6%
Clarksville, TN-KY 55.3% 6.3% 83.8%
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 55.5% 1.8% 86.6%
Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT 55.6% 4.2% 89.6%
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 55.7% 1.7% 85.1%
Salt Lake City, UT 56.2% 4.3% 85.9%
Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach, FL 56.2% 3.4% 83.2%
Port St. Lucie, FL 56.3% 5.7% 82.7%
Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH 56.4% 1.8% 89.4%
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA 56.5% 2.3% 87.1%
Austin-Round Rock, TX 56.5% 2.9% 86.4%
Anchorage, AK 56.6% 7.2% 87.4%
Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO 56.9% 2.4% 87.5%
Tucson, AZ 57.1% 3.0% 84.6%
Lansing-East Lansing, MI 57.1% 3.7% 79.7%
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC 57.2% 3.0% 85.4%
Green Bay, WI 57.2% 5.7% 84.2%
Wilmington, NC 57.7% 6.2% 86.1%
Kalamazoo-Portage, MI 57.9% 4.8% 83.2%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 58.0% 1.8% 89.9%
Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL 58.3% 3.9% 81.8%
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 58.8% 2.5% 87.6%
Ogden-Clearfield, UT 59.0% 5.4% 86.8%
Eugene, OR 59.1% 4.2% 83.0%
Spokane-Spokane Valley, WA 59.2% 3.6% 85.0%
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA 59.4% 4.8% 86.9%
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA 59.5% 5.6% 88.9%
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 59.7% 3.5% 91.1%
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 60.0% 2.0% 86.8%
Madison, WI 60.6% 4.2% 85.1%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 60.7% 2.1% 90.2%
Lincoln, NE 61.2% 5.1% 87.5%
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL 61.4% 4.8% 86.5%
Savannah, GA 61.8% 4.7% 84.5%
Durham-Chapel Hill, NC 61.9% 4.9% 86.9%
Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL 61.9% 7.1% 83.5%
Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA 62.1% 5.4% 86.9%
Colorado Springs, CO 62.9% 3.7% 90.3%
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 63.7% 2.1% 89.5%
Manchester-Nashua, NH 63.9% 5.3% 88.5%
Salem, OR 64.0% 5.8% 87.0%
Tallahassee, FL 64.6% 4.8% 83.0%
Gainesville, FL 64.7% 5.5% 83.9%
Ann Arbor, MI 66.6% 5.0% 88.0%
Provo-Orem, UT 67.6% 5.2% 86.9%
Fort Collins, CO 67.7% 4.8% 89.0%
Olympia-Tumwater, WA 68.2% 6.5% 87.2%
Santa Rosa, CA 69.2% 5.1% 88.1%
San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande, CA 69.2% 6.7% 87.6%
Boulder, CO 73.1% 6.2% 91.1%
The Census Bureau defines “broadband” access as any type of connection with the exception of dial-up. Less than 1 percent of Americans reported having only dial-up access in the survey. SOURCE: 2015 Census American Community Survey estimates