The Obama administration has poured billions of dollars into expanding the reach of the Internet, and nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband. But tens of millions of people are still on the sidelines of the digital revolution.
“The job I’m trying to get now requires me to know how to operate a computer,” said Elmer Griffin, 70, a retired truck driver from Bessemer, Ala., who was recently rejected for a job at an auto-parts store because he was unable to use the computer to check the inventory. “I wish I knew how; I really do. People don’t even want to talk to you if you don’t know how to use the Internet.”
Griffin is among the roughly 20 percent of American adults who do not use the Internet at home, work and school, or by mobile device, a figure essentially unchanged since Barack Obama took office as president in 2009 and initiated a $7 billion effort to expand access, chiefly through grants to build wired and wireless systems in neglected areas of the country.
Administration officials and policy experts say they are increasingly concerned that a significant portion of the population, around 60 million people, is shut off from jobs, government services, health care and education, and that the social and economic effects of that gap are looming larger. Persistent digital inequality — caused by the inability to afford Internet service, disinterest or a lack of computer literacy — is also deepening racial and economic disparities in the United States, experts say.
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“As more tasks move online, it hollows out the offline options,” said John B. Horrigan, a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “A lot of employers don’t accept offline job applications. It means if you don’t have the Internet, you could be really isolated.”
Seventy-six percent of white American households use the Internet, compared with 57 percent of African-American households, according to the “Exploring the Digital Nation,” a Commerce Department report released this summer and based on 2011 data.
The figures also show that Internet use overall is much higher among those with at least some college experience and household income of more than $50,000.
Low adoption rates among older people remain a major hurdle. Slightly more than half of Americans 65 and older use the Internet, compared with well over three-quarters of those younger than 65.
In addition, Internet use is lowest in the South, particularly in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.
Willa Ohnoutka, 78, who has lived in the same house in suburban Houston for 40 years, said she does not use the Internet at all. “I use my telephone,” Ohnoutka said. “I get news on the TV. I’m just not comfortable involving myself with that Internet.”
Others cite expense as the reason they do not use the Internet.
“I am cheap,” said Craig Morgan, 23, a self-employed carpenter from Oxford, Miss. So far, he has made do without the Internet at home, but while he has used a smartphone to connect, that has limitations, he said.
Gloria Bean, 41, an elementary-school teaching assistant from Calhoun City, Miss., said cost was also a reason she had not had Internet access at home for three years.
“I just couldn’t afford it,” she said. Being cut off, she said, “has affected me and my children.”
“They have to have it for school to do research for a paper or something they need for class,” Bean said.
As a result, she added, she often rushes from her job at school to pick up her children and take them to the library, where there are 10 computers.
The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic-stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent.
About $500 million from the package went toward helping people learn to use the Internet. Those programs were highly successful, though on a small scale, producing more than half a million new household subscribers to Internet service, Commerce Department statistics show.
The percentage of people 18 years and older in the United States who have adopted the Internet over the past two decades has grown at a rate not seen since the popularization of the telephone, soaring nearly fivefold, from 14 percent in 1995. Although that growth slowed in more recent years, it had still moved close to 80 percent of the population by the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, according to several academic and government studies.
Since then, however, the number has not budged, shifting between 74 and 79 percent through 2011, according to one study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Pew’s most recent research shows the figure fluttering this year between 81 and 85 percent, a slight uptick that experts attribute to the still-growing popularity of smartphones. Most smartphone users also have home connections, however, and do not face the affordability or digital-literacy problems that have caused Internet adoption to remain stagnant.
Even at that level of Internet adoption, however, the United States, with the world’s largest economy by far, ranked seventh among 20 major global economies in 2012, down from fourth in 2000, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency. Ranking ahead of the United States were Britain, Canada, South Korea, Germany, France and Australia, as well as nearly every other smaller country in Western Europe.
Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Project, said that when the center asked nonusers if they believed they were missing out or were disadvantaged by not using the Internet, most of the older Americans said no, it was not relevant to them. “But when you excluded the seniors,” he added, “most people said, ‘Yeah, I feel like I’m not getting the access to all the things that I need.’ ”
Researchers say the recent recession probably contributed to some of the flattening in Internet adoption, just as the Great Depression stalled the arrival of home-telephone service. But a significant portion of nonusers cite their lack of digital-literacy skills as a discouraging factor.
Some programs, like the federally financed Smart Communities, have shown promising results. Smart Communities, a $7 million effort in Chicago that was part of the administration’s $7 billion investment, provided basic Internet training in English and Spanish for individuals and small businesses. Between 2008 and 2011, the Smart Communities participants registered a statistically significant 15 percentage-point increase in Internet use compared with that in other Chicago community areas.
The Federal Communications Commission and some Internet providers have started programs to make Internet service more affordable for low-income households. Comcast’s 2-year-old Internet Essentials program, which offers broadband service for $10 a month to low-income families, has signed up 220,000 households out of 2.6 million eligible homes in Comcast service areas.