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The socioeconomic digital divide

Fortunately, there are many regions around the world that now have the infrastructure necessary for high-speed Internet.
However, even within a region that is well connected to the Internet, we still find differences in which households have access to computers and the Internet. Those differences are often due to socioeconomic factors.

Income inequality

Consider this chart that compares home access to digital technologies across different income groups in the US:
A bar chart titled "% of US adults who say they have the following . . . " and colored bars for three income groups. The bar chart reflects the data in this table:
Technology< 30K30K-99,999100K+
Desktop or laptop54%83%94%
Home broadband56%81%94%
Tablet computer36%55%70%
All of the above18%39%64%
From a survey conducted Jan-Feb 2019. Data source: Pew Research Center
In the lowest income group, households earning less than $30,000, nearly 50% reported that they did not have a computer or broadband in their home. 1
Those without home computers have to use a smartphone or public computer lab instead when they want to utilize online services. For example, a 2014 study found that 32% of low-income smartphone owners used their phone to submit job applications, compared with just 7% of higher-income smartphone owners. 2

The homework gap

This digital divide also affects the next generation of job seekers—students just trying to get their homework done at home. Teachers are increasingly assigning homework with digital tools and students have to find a way to complete those digital assignments. (Are any of you reading this as part of a homework assignment right now?)
Consider these charts about teenagers and homework completion:
3 bar charts that convey the following information:
% of US teens who say they often or sometimes have to do their homework on a cellphone
Income levelOftenSometimes
< $30K1545
% of US teens who say they often or sometimes are unable to complete homework due to not having a reliable computer or Internet connection
Income levelOftenSometimes
< $30K924
% of US teens who say they often or sometimes use public Wi-Fi to do homework due to not having a home Internet connection
Income levelOftenSometimes
< $30K921
Survey conducted from March - April 2018. Data source: Pew Research Center
In low-income households, students are much more likely to complete homework on their phone, use public Wi-Fi to complete it, or be unable to complete it due to lack of a reliable computer or connection. The statistics are similarly low for Black and Hispanic households. 3
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the fast food restaurant McDonald's is a popular place for students to complete their homework assignments, thanks to its free Wi-Fi, many locations, and late hours. 4
Photo of a laptop on a table, next to a McDonald's soda and tray.
Image source: Kathy Dempsey

Efforts to bridge the socioeconomic divide

Many organizations are attempting to bridge the divide for low-income individuals, especially students.
Governments: The state government of Maine started a 1-to-1 computing initiative in 2002, giving laptops to every 7th and 8th grader in Maine schools. 5
Photo of a boy typing on an Apple laptop.
Maine middle schoolers were given Apple laptops like this one that they could use in class and take home. Image source: Karen McMilan
Non-profits: ConnectHomeUSA is a project bringing computers, connections, and digital literacy training to people living in subsidized housing. GiveInternet is an international non-profit that raises money to give laptops, Internet connections, and digital training to underserved high school students.
A boy smiling with a laptop in front of his home.
This is Irakli, a high schooler that received a laptop thanks to GiveInternet. Image source: Irma Gachechiladze
Internet Service Providers (ISPs): For-profit companies are also getting involved in helping to bridge the digital divide. Comcast Internet Essentials offers low-cost Internet connections for eligible low-income households, while Sprint started the 1Million Project Foundation, an effort to give one million high schoolers a wireless Internet connection and computing device.
Photo of a laptop with a coding editor on it, plus a man clapping behind it.
A learner using our Khan Academy coding editor. Internet access enables students to use Khan and other online tools. Image source: Khan Academy.

🙋🏽🙋🏻‍♀️🙋🏿‍♂️Do you have any questions about this topic? We'd love to answer—just ask in the questions area below!

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby blue style avatar for user Prof. Parmigiano Reggiano
    It is important to help more demographics of people have access to the internet, but if 10% of students can't do homework because of a lack of home internet connection, wouldn't the appropriate thing to do be to offer alternative homework? It is important to learn how to use technology, but it is also important that school lessons themselves be accessible.
    (19 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user yzuo
      The thing is, that not every teacher is the most responsible, so they may just give out the homework. Also, most public schools can barely afford to give every child computers, so it may be more difficult to lend internet hotspots.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Kyle Chmielowski
    I am a member of a low-income household who has experienced the digital divide firsthand. I currently write this on my Chromebook on a mobile hotspot connection as my family can't afford a broadband Internet connection. It's not impossible to get all the info I need and I find that libraries are critical as a resource of learning for those experiencing the digital divide. Can anyone relate?
    (7 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user KLaudano
      You may want to look into the Affordable Connectivity Program. It is a federal program that provides a discount towards broadband internet for low-income households. In addition, it can provide a one-time discount on the purchase of a computer.
      (6 votes)
  • leaf red style avatar for user Gamar
    I don't understand the chart for students and their homework completion.
    It says like "have to do homework on cellphone", then it says < $30K and 45%. What?
    Where did the 30K dollars come into that specific question? I don't even know what they would imply, the price of the phone along with phone service?
    It doesn't say.
    I'm confused.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Shane McGookey
      The < $30K metric carries over from the initial chart comparing home access to digital technologies across different income groups in the US. Therefore, the < $30K under the chart for students and their homework completion represents an income group (< $30K income per year).

      The percent values represent "the % of US teens who say that often or sometimes ... X," thus the statistic you are referring to can be interpreted as:

      "45% of US teens say that they often or sometimes have to do their homework on a cellphone in the < $30K per year income group."
      (11 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user willg781
    is there a place I can learn graph literacy ? I literally feel like like a graph illiterate reading these side graphs on this course right here..
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user daviidyoung14
    As someone who is currently taking this course on the laptop I just got after saving for several years, I definitely relate to/understand the struggles included in the socioeconomic divide pertaining to internet access. The difference in the use and accessibility of a laptop compared to a smartphone when applying to jobs or for online learning is huge.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user