Closing the digital divide

Closing the digital divide

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In the first half of the 20th century, a well-known psychologist, Abraham Maslow, created what is now seen as foundational in the social sector: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Here, he stated that basic needs—like food, housing, rest, employment, and health—must be met before a person can effectively take on the betterment of the self, like learning and community connection.

What was true then is still true now, and a lot of great work has been done in Kenosha county around food distribution, housing help, and employment, especially since we have started “safer at home.”

But what sits in the shadow of supplying basic needs is a much more important question: how does a person gain access to them? This has to do with basic infrastructure.

Prior to the early 90s, access meant cars, roads, safe sidewalks, electricity, telephones, and water. In the last 30 years, a new way of connection has exploded and become a main hub for almost every daily activity: the internet.

While we can debate whether this has been a net positive or negative, the internet is here to stay, and it has changed our way of life—and made connection and gaining knowledge a lot easier.

There has been a steadily growing clamor in the last decade or so, but at no time before the current pandemic has the need to expand internet access been so apparent. As schools, employers, retail, health, and mental health services move online, at least in part, there is a growing need for all Kenosha County residents to have access to the internet.

The US Census estimates that about 17% of Kenosha County lacks an internet subscription, and about 11% of those that have a subscription get internet only through a phone data plan.

In some places, Kenosha has made strides in expanding access, but we still struggle with neighborhood infrastructure of broadband, otherwise known as “The Last Mile.” There are many examples of different strategies, like Chattannooga, Tennessee offering public WiFi access, to Cleveland partnering with a local non-profit to provide widespread access to all district families.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, using that same Census data, we can see that there is a very strong correlation between lack of internet access and lower income areas, implying that those that are already at a disadvantage are being forced even further behind.

In systems change work, it is necessary to look at things on a broader level; outcomes are a result of a huge web of interconnected services, not one single entity. Internet access:

Allows children to continue education virtually;

Offers opportunities for adults to earn additional virtual job training, re-education and certifications;

Expands a potential pool of employees and employers by creating a greater connection between the two;

Enhances communications between the government and the people they serve about food and housing services, COVID-19 news and planning, and other updates; and

Expands options for health services, benefitting both healthcare systems and those that live far away from a healthcare facility.

Building Our Future has undertaken advocacy efforts with state and national partners, as well as helping local partners work with data around internet access, but there are limits to what is possible with these efforts.

Lack of internet connectivity affects everyone. Inequitable access leaves those in our society who are already behind even more disconnected, which impacts not only them, but their potential employers, their community, and our greater County as a whole. We need to address it collectively and address it now.

Eric Lequesne is

Building Our Future research

and evaluation manager.

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