November 18, 2021
The digital divide existed long before the pandemic, but COVID-19 brought to light how lack of access to reliable internet and technology at home outside of work or school can exacerbate economic disparity and leave entire communities behind. A group of Computer Science students at Stanford provide a succinct definition of the digital divide: The digital divide refers to the “growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet; and the wealthy, middle-class, and young Americans living in urban and suburban areas who have access.”
Having reliable access to the internet plays a huge role in determining our ability to thrive. A reliable internet connection is required (or makes it much easier) to complete many of life’s essential tasks, from checking your bank account and paying your bills to scheduling appointments at the DMV or applying to jobs. Access is a requirement in order to engage with most of the economic, political, and social aspects of our culture. In most cases, those without it fall behind — they too often lose their voice in our democracy and simply struggle to make ends meet.
Internet access in California - too many still left behind
While it’s important to note and celebrate that here in California nearly 91% of households have high-speed internet access, low-income residents are still “caught in the digital divide.” According to this survey published in March, 2021 by USC and the California Emerging Technology Fund, 16% are unconnected and 10% depend on smartphones. 29% of households earning less than $40,000 a year have no internet connection or only have access through a smartphone. This is especially troubling considering the mass closures of places like schools, libraries, and businesses during the pandemic that are sources of internet access to those without access at home.
So besides the social implications, why should you care as a business owner? Put bluntly, how might the digital divide affect your bottom line?
Why business owners should care about the digital divide
A local nonprofit in our area, DigitalNest, connects youth not only with access to the internet but access to skills in digital technologies that empower them to become successful professionals. DigitalNest argues that by providing these youth with cutting-edge skills in technology, they give local businesses access to highly trained workers at competitive rates and help create better jobs and more economic development in your community. If we leave an entire segment of our population behind, those individuals aren’t able to contribute innovative solutions to our local and global problems. Our local workforce also suffers because we’re not tapping into the full potential of our community’s residents.
Especially as a small business owner, it can be hard to find talented employees that you can afford. Part of the problem is that a significant number of individuals, specifically youth, lack access to the internet and aren't receiving the training to prepare them for today’s workforce. If we leave these people behind, we limit our own job pool and stunt our community’s economic growth.
How we can narrow the gap
While the digital divide continues to be a hurdle to many youth and adults striving to access the opportunities most of us take for granted, how can we as business owners help narrow the gap? Here in Santa Cruz County, small business owners can hire youth at very affordable rates through the DigitalNest. You could also hire an apprentice, using Apprentice Brigade as a model or partner in this endeavor. If you don’t have the time to invest in training an apprentice or you don’t have any open positions, you can also contribute to the Equal Access Santa Cruz County fund through the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County. Together, we can bridge the digital divide and not only help fellow community members thrive but ensure our businesses have the skilled workforce required for us to thrive as well.
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