Expert Commentary

Computer usage and access in low-income urban communities

2013 study from USC showing the promise and challenges involved in a program providing access to computers to low-income residents in Los Angeles.


Although an estimated 85% of American adults and more than 90% of teens use the Internet, some poorer areas in the United States still see comparatively low rates of home computer use; many are languishing without a connection to the Web, although some efforts are underway to make affordable broadband available to all Americans. A U.S. Commerce Department report, issued in June 2013, notes that access and adoption rates vary significantly according to demographic profile. “In aggregate, seven out of ten households and about two out of three persons ages 16 and older used broadband at home by 2011,” the report, “Exploring the Digital Nation,” states. “However, low-income, non-Asian minority, and rural households were much less likely to be connected than their more affluent, urban, and white or Asian American counterparts.”

The concept of the “digital divide” — the idea that lower-income citizens suffer in a variety of ways from the lack of Internet access — has been studied for many years. The results are complex. Without a doubt, having access to technology is a necessary first step, but studies in recent years have also focused on the cultural factors that make the divide so persistent. Research has looked at how a lack of digital literacy can affect people with less education, even if they are able to access the Internet. A 2010 study from Duke University concludes that students who gain access to a home computer frequently show a decline in math and reading scores, as screen time crowds out homework time. Scholars have long advocated a focus on knowledge and usage patterns, not just access.

A 2013 study from researchers at the University of Southern California, “Computer Usage and Access in Low-Income Urban Communities,” provides an up-close look at how providing technology to persons living in deep poverty can affect families. A group of residents living in the Watts district of South Central Los Angeles — almost all African-American or Latino — was given access to computers through the Computers for Families program. More than three-quarters of participants reported household earnings of less than $1,000 per month, and 44% reported having no income. More than half had not completed middle school.

The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, examines outcomes in terms of employment, education and children’s usage/education; the researchers use surveys, tests and interviews to collect data on the participating families. Many of the participants attended a computer “boot camp” at the outset to establish basic skills. The researchers compared the results to those of a control group, which was not scheduled to receive computers until a later point in time.

The study’s findings include:

  • The participants reported some benefits, particularly relating to employment prospects: “Adult participants took advantage of their newly acquired computer skills and put them to use towards submitting resumes and filling out employment applications through online sources at significantly greater rates than non-participants.”
  • The participating families did not fare better than the control group on other measures, however. “Despite [some] successes, program participants continued to face challenges that were generally related to Internet connectivity and lack of computer literacy.” Further, the “data analysis from both groups suggests that there are not major differences between experimental and control groups in the area” of general computer usage and knowledge.
  • Mere access to computer hardware was not the solution to all technology challenges: “Ongoing problems identified by our program participants included a slow Internet connection and frequent software- and hardware-related malfunctions. Although Internet connectivity issues were not under the program’s control, technical assistance was available to participants by phone and by in person pick-up of malfunctioning equipment.”

The researchers note that “effective interventions geared toward minimizing the digital divide will require a thorough understanding of the socioeconomic issues, educational goals and cultural values of the disadvantaged population while also ensuring accessibility to computers and technology.”

The study concludes that programs seeking to help low-income residents by providing technology must be more comprehensive in their approach: “To assist low-income community residents in becoming competitive applicants within the job market, future implementation of the Computers for Families program should not only include a ‘boot-camp’ basic computer training, but also ongoing and progressive trainings that will enhance participants’ skill sets. For example, those interested in working within an office setting could greatly benefit from typing classes as well as learning about software such as Microsoft. Providing such trainings to participants will likely increase the chances that they become employable and ultimately, self-sufficient within their own communities.”

Related research: A case study written by researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa shows evidence of success in implementing a federally funded program in Chicago to promote Internet adoption and use from 2008 to 2011. A 2013 study, “Explaining Changes in the Racial Digital Divide in the United States from 1997 to 2007,” provides a comparative examination of computer and Internet adoption over time. The data indicate that the “disparity in home Internet use is less due to white/black differences in measurable characteristics (e.g., education and income) but more due to ‘other’ unobservable factors that influence one’s tastes for and uses of the technology.” A 2013 paper from scholars at Fordham University, Michigan State and the University of Toronto, “Mobile Leapfrogging and Digital Divide Policy,” highlights the developing world’s patterns of Internet access and examines the tradeoffs in them.

For a journalistic perspective on these issues, see “Most of U.S. Is Wired, but Millions Aren’t Plugged in,” by Edward Wyatt of the New York Times.

Tags: technology, African-American, Latino, Hispanic, infrastructure, telecommunications

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