The digital divide continues in the US as lower-income Americans fall behind

People look at their smartphones in lower Manhattan in New York City, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RC1AD90F8460

The digital divide still persists in America. Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar

Monica Anderson
Research Associate, Pew Research Center
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Thirty years after the debut of the World Wide Web, internet use, broadband adoption and smartphone ownership have grown rapidly for all Americans – including those who are less well-off financially. But even as many aspects of the digital divide have narrowed over time, the digital lives of lower- and higher-income Americans remain markedly different.

Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (29%) don’t own a smartphone. More than four-in-ten don’t have home broadband services (44%) or a traditional computer (46%). And a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies are nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

Image: Pew Research Center

Higher-income Americans are also more likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online. Roughly two-thirds of adults living in high-earning households (64%) have home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet, compared with 18% of those living in lower-income households.

With fewer options for online access at their disposal, many lower-income Americans are relying more on smartphones. As of early 2019, 26% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are “smartphone-dependent” internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home. This represents a substantial increase from 12% in 2013. In contrast, only 5% of those living in households earning $100,000 or more fall into this category in 2019.

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This reliance on smartphones also means that the less affluent are more likely to use them for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens. For example, lower-income smartphone owners were especially likely to use their mobile device when seeking out and applying for jobs, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report.

The disparity in online access is also apparent in what has been called the “homework gap” – the gap between school-age children who have access to high-speed internet at home and those who don’t. In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

The digital divide has been a central topic in tech circles for decades with researchers, advocates and policymakers examining this issue. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated his commitment to bringing high-speed internet services to lower-income communities, though there are partisan differences in views of how this should be carried out.

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