An Internet Census and the Digital Divide

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

In my last post, I gave a shout-out to my father, who I fear could be overlooked by a largely electronic census, given dad’s likely nonagenarian status in 2020. Older Americans uncomfortable with today’s gadgets are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to population groups that the Census Bureau might have difficulty reaching through the Internet.

It does seem like everyone is walking around with a smartphone glued to their ear, or reading their news or the latest Stephen King novel on a tablet. But the hard facts — gleaned from a Census Bureau survey on Internet usage — tell a different story.

In Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States, the Commerce Department reported that more than three-fourths (77 percent) of U.S. households own a computer, be it handheld or sitting on a desk or lap. But computer ownership and broadband adoption are not spread evenly across household income levels, race and ethnicity, age, level of education, disability status, and geographic location.

Consider a few of the reports specific findings:

  • Seventy-three percent of urban (metropolitan area) households use the Internet, compared to 62 percent in rural (non-metropolitan area) households. Seventy percent of urban households have broadband access; 57 percent of rural households do.
  • More than four-fifths of Asian households and roughly three-quarters of non-Hispanic White households use the Internet. Less than 60 percent of Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Hispanic households can access the Internet at home.
  • Forty-six percent of households with incomes below $25,000 have home Internet access, compared to 84 percent of households in the $50,000 – $75,000 income bracket. There also are significant broadband adoption differences by household income: Nearly 90 percent of households in the $75,000 – $100,000 income range access the Internet using broadband; only 43 percent of households in under-$25,000 group do.
  • Less than half of household heads with a disability use the Internet, compared to three-quarters of those without a disability.

A more fine-grained analysis of the data revealed greater variability by socio-economic characteristic; the department reported, for example, that less than 30 percent of Black rural homes whose head of household lacked a high school diploma use a computer. Commerce Under Secretary (and Deputy Secretary-designate) Rebecca Blank told reporters at a press briefing (11/8/11) that the large gaps in access to broadband and Internet use were “striking and not something we expected to see.”

For census apostles, the most worrisome aspect of the disparate access to computers and reliable Internet is that, to a significant degree, many population groups lagging behind technologically are historically harder to count in the census and prone to disproportionate undercounts. Furthermore, a quarter of households without Internet access cite affordability as a major barrier to this service. Current economic trends do not favor better financial circumstances for lower income households.

Earlier this fall, I mused about the lightening pace of technological change, which will present significant challenges for the Census Bureau as it designs a less-costly enumeration for 2020 over an eight-year span. No doubt, access to computers and the Internet will increase across all demographic subgroups with time. But as new technologies emerge, differential access to those tools is likely to persist.

All of these factors pose significant challenges for the Census Bureau, as it tries to balance the obvious advantages technology offers for ease of participation, operational efficiency and cost containment, with the need to count people who cannot or will not respond electronically. (To complicate the census planning process, U.S. Postal Service budget woes might slow the delivery of first-class mail across the country; Saturday delivery might also be a historical footnote by decade’s end.)

So, yes, I agree with Census Director Robert Groves that 2020 must be a “multi-mode census. … We must move beyond the mailback questionnaire and the personal interview … to ensure that the response options for the census reflect the communication platforms that people are using.” (Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, April 6, 2011.) But some of those modes will be more costly and traditional than others, and Congress must be mindful of the digital divide as it decides how much money to spend on planning and execution of the next decennial count.

 # # # 

From the Census Project family to yours:
Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012!
(REMEMBER: The next census is only eight years away!)