What’s digital exclusion and why does it matter?

If you’re reading this, you have access to the Internet and you know how to use it.

Chances are, you use it constantly… from a high speed broadband connection when you’re in your home or office, and from your mobile device or smartphone when you’re not.

You use it to do your job, run your business, communicate with pretty much everyone you know, shop, pay your bills, get directions.  If you’ve been out of work recently, you used it to look for a job and to apply for the one you got. You use the Internet to follow the news, to find out about elections and candidates, to communicate with public officials and public services.  You use it to find health information, to make doctor’s appointments, renew prescriptions, and check your test results.  You use it to manage your bank account, loans and credit cards, get paid, pay your taxes, and generally keep track of your finances.  If you’re in school… well, you know how much of that happens on line.

And that’s all in addition to your online hobbies, entertainment, and social life of all varieties. (Married since 2005? There’s one chance in three that you met your spouse on the Internet.)

For most Americans, a high speed Internet connection has become the normal, routine, essential tool for all these daily tasks.

But according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey for 2015, at least a third of adult Cleveland residents don’t have the broadband or mobile connections they need to do them at home.

Our disconnected one-third includes 55% of city residents aged 65 and above; more than half of the 52,000 adults without high school diplomas; and a clear majority of households with annual household incomes below $20,000.

Here are some of the real-world implications of those numbers:

  • Tens of thousands of our lowest-income unemployed neighbors can’t search or apply for jobs online.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Medicare and Medicaid patients can’t use their providers’ new online patient portals.
  • The computerization of all GED testing is putting high school diplomas out of reach for thousands of adults who desperately need them.
  • As banks scale back their neighborhood branches in response to the massive movement of their customers to Internet banking, elderly residents and others who can’t bank on line are at risk of becoming “unbanked”.
  • As news coverage, electoral information and campaigning all shift to the world of websites, social media and email, hundreds of thousands of our communities’ poorer, less educated and older citizens are politically marginalized and disempowered.

Digital exclusion is a personal disaster for the individuals and households who are left further and further behind.

But it’s also a dead weight holding back any effort to make our cities and neighborhoods more educated, more prosperous, healthier, or more engaged in the democratic process.