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Achieving Digital Equity for California’s Students

From April 2020 to May 2021, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a Michelson Spark Grantee, studied the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on digital inequity, particularly among school-age children in California. Researchers leveraged 2019 census data from over 35,000 households in California to establish the pre-COVID baseline as they considered how ethnic groups, income levels, educational attainment, and locality impacted device access and connectivity. The findings are published in Achieving Digital Equity for California’s Students, which was discussed during an event by the same name

 

Key Findings

PPIC found that the digital equity gap decreased by approximately one-third during the pandemic, although much work remains. Takeaways include: 

  • Rates of reliable internet increased 4.7%, among households whose head has less than a bachelor’s degree;
  • Among low-income households, rates of reliable internet increased 8.6% while device access increased 26.4%;
  • Black households experienced a 13.6% increase in reliable internet and a 28.2% increase in device access;
  • Device access among Latino households increased 16.7%;

Despite the increases, the gap between white and Latino households increased as white households saw larger gains in device and internet access during this time than Latino households did. At the same time, device access among Black, Asian, and Latino households remains less reliable than white households’ device access. 

During this time, Asian households saw a significant decline in internet and device access, which PPIC noted might be skewed due to how the question was worded, “How often is the Internet available to children for educational purposes?” PPIC reasoned that “[a]t the onset of the pandemic, many parents began working from home, and those who were able to may have upgraded their entire household’s internet subscription to accommodate multiple workers and learners. Those who were not receiving school assistance in obtaining internet access may have replied in the negative.”

 

Opportunities to Close the Remaining Digital Equity Gaps

On October 28, 2021, a panel of digital equity experts and advocates discussed how the federal, state, and local levels can close the remaining gaps in digital access. Speakers included Joseph Hayes, research associate, PPIC; Niu Gao, senior fellow, PPIC; Marguerite Reardon, senior reporter, CNET; Amy Tong, direction and state chief information officer, California Department of Technology; and Luis Wong, chief technology officer, Imperial County Office of Education. During the event, the panelists focused on the two greatest barriers to universal broadband access: affordability and infrastructure. 

To address this, accurate and detailed mapping of digital inequity–demographic information, existing infrastructure, etc–is needed for policymakers, advocates, and service providers to identify where resources are needed most. Rural areas and areas that have historically suffered from digital redlining are among the hardest hit. The panel noted that the maps provided by internet service providers often overstate access, which can further digital inequity. 

In addition to mapping, increasing awareness of existing and future programs is also essential to closing the digital divide. Many programs exist, such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program, but few people who would benefit from the program are aware of it. In fact, “the FCC estimates that in the US in the US, about 34 million households were eligible [for EBB],” the panel stated.

Increasing affordability, building the necessary infrastructure, accurately mapping the digital divide, and raising awareness of beneficial programs all require funding, which the House of Representatives recognized earlier this month as they passed a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. This bill, which the Senate passed in August, includes a $65 billion investment in the United States’ broadband infrastructure–an investment that has the promise of significantly decreasing digital inequity. As the nation prepares to invest these funds, we hope that the lessons learned and recommendations outlined in PPIC’s report will serve as a guide for decision makers.

 

Michelson 20MM is a private, nonprofit foundation seeking to accelerate progress towards a more just world through grantmaking, operating programs, and impact investing. Co-chaired and funded by Alya and Gary Michelson, Michelson 20MM is part of the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations.

 

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