August 6, 2015
Five Charts to Reveal the Real Digital Divide
The impact of cheap ubiquitous Internet access can be found in countless aspects of American work and society. However, a divide still exists between those with Internet access and those without. According to the most recent study by the Pew Research Center, this divide includes about 15 percent of American adults.
The White House and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have released proposals to close the digital divide, which has been portrayed as primarily between the rich and the poor. However, AAF analysis of Pew data suggests that the real digital divide is likely between the old and young rather than just rich and poor, since older Americans have lower incomes, which demands a rethinking of the proposed programs.
Last month, the FCC released plans to expand its Lifeline subsidy program, which currently is used for telephone and wireless access, to include broadband. In arguing for this expansion, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler explained:
“While more than 95 percent of households with incomes over $150,000 have broadband, only 48 percent of those making less than $25,000 have service at home. A world of broadband ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is a world where none of us will have the opportunity to enjoy the full fruits of what broadband has to offer.”
Similarly President Obama’s proposal, known as ConnectHome, aims to connect more low-income communities to high-speed Internet. While it is undeniable that Internet adoption is higher in households with more income, it is worth investigating what the most significant factors behind non-adoption are. In other words, is the digital divide simply a chasm of income?
The 5 Charts
The Pew Research Center recently released its 2000-2015 study on Internet adoption that provides some fascinating data for answering this particular question. Below is a chart created using Pew data that examines the advances made in Internet adoption by income bracket over the last 15 years. Under all income brackets it would appear that there remains a large gap between rich and poor, however this graph alone does not tell the whole story.
As has been widely documented, age also correlates strongly with Internet usage and may be a confounding variable in the analysis. Suspecting this, Pew researchers gave us access to their data, allowing us to further break down the relationship between age, income, and Internet adoption.
By excluding those above age 64 we found that the adoption rate jumps up 7 percentage points in the lowest income bracket.
By further constricting the age range to all adults 18-49 years old, all income brackets converge at or above 90 percent Internet usage.
Finally, looking only at the age range of 18-29, Internet usage is near universal regardless of income bracket.
These findings indicate that age is a far more significant factor than income when determining whether or not an individual uses the Internet. Income is an increasingly minor contributing factor, and the demographics that have grown up with the Internet are simply more likely to be connected. The true digital divide seems to be between poor, older people and everyone else.
This makes sense. Poor, older people are the ones who have had the least exposure to the Internet and the least reason to use it. Many are retired or employed in the offline economy.
This age-based digital divide also puts the Pew “Who’s Not Online and Why” study into perspective.
As their report shows, only 19 percent of offline adults listed price as the primary reason for non-adoption. Meanwhile relevance and usability make up 66 percent, which are the two areas we would expect to be significant considering the offline population consists of mainly people aged 65 years or older and are out of the workforce.
In a world of scarce resources and limited government funding, it is important that we fund the programs that would have the greatest impact on the problems we intend to solve. If our goal is to bridge the digital divide and help more Americans access the Internet, it’s hard to see how offering a subsidy without a solid basis in outcomes is the best use of funds.
Additional data from Andrew Perrin and Maeve Duggan, Americans’ Internet Access: 2000-2015,
 Federal Communications Commission, FCC Takes Steps to Modernize and Reform Lifeline for Broadband, https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-takes-steps-modernize-and-reform-lifeline-broadband
 Tom Wheeler, A Lifeline for Low-Income Americans, https://www.fcc.gov/blog/lifeline-low-income-americans
 The White House Office of the Press Secretary, FACT SHEET: ConnectHome: Coming Together to Ensure Digital Opportunity for All Americans, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/07/15/fact-sheet-connecthome-coming-together-ensure-digital-opportunity-all
 Pew Research Center, Internet User Demographics, http://www.pewInternet.org/data-trend/Internet-use/latest-stats/
 Kathryn Zickuhr, Who’s Not Online and Why, http://www.pewInternet.org/2013/09/25/whos-not-online-and-why/