Saturday, June 6, 2020

The Digital Divide widens the Economic Divide.

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( Behind the staggering rise in new unemployment claims – ten million over the last two weeks – lies an even more worrisome situation: the digital divide is widening the economic divide.  The numbers show there is a stark division between who gets to work from home, or work at all, and who doesn’t.

Findings of a recent Ipsos poll revealed that “The rich and affluent have gone virtual”.  According to Ipsos’ Cliff Young, “they’ve maintained their jobs through the virtual world.”  Sixty-five percent of upper-income workers reported they are working normally, or from home, while the poll found the same for only twenty-nine percent of lower-income workers, with just three percent working from home.

Industries, and workers, hardest hit by the unprecedented wave of unemployment are in the service, retail and hospitality sectors.  This includes workers who clean our offices, stock our grocery shelves and make deliveries.  Their work requires them to be present, with no option to escape into “virtual reality.”  We now praise them as “heroes”, but will we still value their sacrifice when this is over?

The “social infrastructure”

These are the workers we depend on for the everyday tasks we take for granted, but without whom life as we know it grinds to a halt, or at least becomes very inconvenient.  Jeff Herbert, an urban planner, points out that this public health crisis has highlighted the “deficiencies in our social infrastructure” and the need for more policies that promote things like tenants’ rights, workers’ rights, paid sick leave and unemployment insurance.  We should support these initiatives locally whenever we have the chance.

Affordable housing advocates have long maintained the need for more “workforce” and “mixed-income” housing that would allow these workers to be able to live in the areas where they work.  That also includes occupations like school teachers, police officers, transit workers and nurses.  Any well-functioning community relies on these workers, as their unavailability now so vividly demonstrates.

Distance learning out of reach

Nowhere has the digital divide been more stark, and damaging, than in education.  As schools have had to close, many school districts also had to scrap plans for online education as the majority of their students lacked either broadband or Wi-Fi connections, the devices to connect with, or both.  That held true for rural and urban school districts.

In the so-called Phase 3 two trillion dollar relief package, some in congress had sought to include funding for improved internet service and devices, like tablets or laptops, for students.  That funding was not included because it was said not to be part of the current public health crisis.  Of course, now we see differently.  More than ever, educational attainment levels determine occupational opportunities.

America 3.0

On an Axios livestream program titled “Leadership in Crisis”, Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team talked about this being the “time for a reset” and called it “America 2.0.”  It’s actually 3.0 counting the Civil War and Reconstruction (Incidentally, while you’re in quarantine, pick up a copy of Eric Foner’s “THE SECOND FOUNDING: HOW THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION REMADE THE CONSTITUTION”, a fascinating read).  We need to be thinking about new ways of solving these societal challenges that have long been with us and that this pandemic has again exposed and exacerbated.  Ways we can repair and improve the “social infrastructure” we rely on to keep goods and services flowing, modern life moving.

More than anything, this coronavirus outbreak has shown how reliant we have become on all-things related to the internet.  How we work, play, learn and shop.  Internet access in the present age is what electricity and running water were to our parents and grandparents: once a luxury then a necessity.  Closing, or at least narrowing, the digital divide is going to be one of the biggest and most important challenges of our time.  It is also the essential ingredient to leveling the economic playing field.

Staff Writer; Harry Sewell

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