Thursday, June 9, 2016

Looking at Our Deepest Digital Divide

If you are unemployed and not super-skilled to the point where employers are breaking down your door, where do you find out about available openings? The local Unemployment Office (by going down there)? How many desirable employers post with that governmental agency anyway? Your college job postings? Great if (a) you went to college and (b) if your college is good at finding and posting jobs. Asking your friends about openings where they work? If you are part of a community of well-placed, well-employed individuals, wonderful. How about job search engines, social media where openings are discussed, and general information about employment options in your area? Yup… that.
Just about all of the above pathways to job openings – other than the rather ineffective state unemployment office – require some kind of knowing access. And while most of us, particularly folks who routinely read my blogs, have clear Web-access, for too many on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder, the cost of that access often falls beyond available cash used for food, rent and transportation.
Take one of the greatest pockets of urban decay in our nation – the almost 700,000 people who live in Detroit. Sure, the job picture in even that super-rusted city is getting better, as tech start-ups, luxury retailers and cost-conscious service and staff-driven companies find the cheaper rents from largely under-deployed real estate very attractive. The city’s unemployment rate has dropped from 19% in 2013 to 11% now, but that number is highly misleading since too many have simply given up looking anymore (and are no longer counted in that unemployment statistic). In a world where knowledge is king and access to the Internet vital, Detroit is an abysmal underperformer. Dial-up is close to useless these days (most sites are now designed for those with high-speed access), but broadband can pull a pricey and unaffordable $70/month in the Motor City.
“Detroit has the worst rate of Internet access of any big American city, with four in 10 of its 689,000 residents lacking broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. While difficulties connecting to the Internet are well known in rural areas, Detroit is becoming a case study in how the digital divide in an urban setting can make or break a recovery.
“The deficiency of Internet access in Detroit is particularly glaring given that broadband is now considered as basic as having electricity and water. Last year, the F.C.C. defined high-speed Internet as a public utility and made connecting all American homes to the web a priority. Yet many Detroit residents cannot pay for the service or a computer to go online, or for mobile data plans, which enable 24-hour Internet access anywhere over smartphones…
‘All basic research for jobs and the forms we use to apply for jobs is online,’ said Jed Howbert, the executive director for jobs and economic development in Detroit’s mayoral office. ‘Lack of broadband access is one of several obstacles to employment that we are systematically trying to take down.’…
Every day it becomes harder to find opportunities in Detroit without using the web… Applications for Detroit’s summer jobs program for youth and young adults are taken only online. Most listings on Michigan’s biggest private and public jobs site require email, uploads of résumés and online tests. College financial aid, unemployment benefits and public food assistance programs have shifted to online systems as fewer government offices offer in-person or phone services.” New York Times, May 22nd. What’s clear, however, is that those neighborhoods where Web-access has the least penetration also have unemployment rates at a multiple over Detroit average.
So for those seeking jobs, where applying online is de rigueur and where prospective employers often communicate with applicants electronically, not being able to access the Web on a fairly constant basis is a serious disadvantage. Add to this to the growing basic requirement that job applicants have basic, if not more seriously advanced, computer skills for so many jobs, and you have a recipe for a growing and possibly more permanent underclass… folks living on the wrong side of the “digital divide.” In short, they are being left behind if not out of what the rest of us simply take for granted.
When employers seeking a modicum of computer skills require a simple online test, those without broadband access need not apply, assuming that they even have those minimal skills in the first place. Local public libraries have picked up some of the slack, offering classes in basic computer skills as well as the physical computers with broadband access needed to reach the Web effectively. But those without their own computers and access can’t constantly run to their local libraries, often crowded these days, to check their emails for employer responses.
Smart phones? Pricey too and not good alternatives to a full screen and an operational keyboard. Computers? A cost too many families cannot afford. Broadband Internet access? Yeah… While the FCC has a Congressional mandate – legislation passed when Dems controlled both houses of Congress as well as the presidency – to expand broadband access to impoverished Americans or those living in isolated rural communities, the austerity-driven GOP-controlled Congress has not been supportive for the required additional funding.
“A federal broadband program established [in 2009] to kick-start new economic opportunities for rural areas by delivering high-speed Internet connectivity has left a trail of half-completed, partially operational projects in its wake and requires better monitoring and reporting to prevent such costly failures, reports a Congressional watchdog agency.
“Several dozen of the Agriculture Department's $3 billion Broadband Initiatives Program infrastructure projects were terminated by department officials for various reasons, including financial difficulties or a failure to meet program requirements, said the General Accountability Office in a June 17, 2014 report].”, June 18, 2016. States and local communities, combined with charitable foundations, have helped somewhat, offering WiFi to their constituents in selected areas, but there is still a lack of training and equipment among lower-income people even in those communities.
Have we finally reached the point where Web-access, including the training and equipment necessary to implement, have become a basic rights... or do we prefer creating a permanent underclass that will continue to squeeze taxpayers in other ways: social benefit programs, lost taxes from earnings, people seeking alternative economics in criminal activities and the governmental systems necessary to deal with the consequences? Which is the least expensive alternative.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as the world changes, so must so many rights and systems in the societies charged with dealing with that change.

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