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Our Digital Divide

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

In the past, the struggle for equality and access might have been focused in certain areas, such as education, jobs, health care, or finance, to name just a few. Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, the question of achieving progress in any one of these realms was considered largely in isolation from the others so that solving issues of access and equality in education, for example, was separate and distinct from how to do so in health care, or employment, or finance.

One thing the pandemic has revealed is that providing a level playing field in any one of these pressing areas has to start with providing solid, affordable, and consistent internet access to all residents, regardless of where they live or how much they earn. When the pandemic struck there was a mad scramble to shift as much as possible online, whether working from home, remotely teaching, telemedicine, banking, or ordering groceries.

That’s fine and good if you have high-speed internet and all the devices needed to survive and thrive online, but what if you’re at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder or you live in a rural area where the internet providers have decided it’s simply not profitable to build out the infrastructure? When the pandemic hit here, the school system did a good job of providing tablets to our students. The problem is that many hundreds don’t have internet access in their homes.

I recall an article from a couple of years ago by Colleen O’Dea for NJ Spotlight that reviewed data from the American Community Survey. At that time, she noted that less than 60 percent of households could go online in Bridgeton, Salem, Camden, Trenton, and Perth Amboy. This was in comparison to some 95 percent of households able to go online in 17 of the wealthier suburbs in central and northern New Jersey.

Things have not improved much since then. As we speak, there are 1,983 households in Bridgeton without internet access, which represents 31 percent of our total number of households. Of Cumberland County’s roughly 50,000 households, 15 percent do not have internet access, which is highest among New Jersey’s counties. As for the reasons why, some of it centers on geography while some of it is about poverty. As for the statewide number, approximately 10 percent of New Jersey households lack internet access.

But before we can consider specific solutions, it may well be necessary to adjust our perspectives about the digital divide and internet access, especially when it comes to the social safety net. We might not have a problem using taxpayer monies to provide income-eligible families with WIC benefits (cereal, fruit or vegetable juice, eggs, milk, cheese, and peanut butter), but suggest that the safety net include high-speed internet and you’re likely to have one hell of a fight on your hands.

Yet one of the biggest problems for many low-income families trying help their school-age children keep pace is internet access and without that, no matter how good schools are with providing the technology for students to take home, there is no ability to do remote instruction. Internet providers may provide some type of free introductory deal, but once that expires and the monthly fees kick in, families either have to add that cost to their monthly burden or lose the service.

Specific programs and solutions aside, my point is that we will have to fundamentally shift our thinking about internet access and all things digital. Rather than characterizing internet access as a luxury used for looking at cat videos and shopping on Amazon, we need to acknowledge it as essential in the way we now consider plumbing, heat and electric as essential with minimum standards to be met.

During the pandemic, many doctors won’t see patients’ in the office, but instead will set up telehealth visits online. How many haven’t gotten the help they need because they can’t access a doctor online? Beyond that, how does this gap in care for some impact the health of the broader community? As we go forward, whether it involves employment, interacting with the court system, or engaging a host of services public and private, more and more of it will be online. Unless we address the digital divide made obvious by the pandemic, inequality will increase dramatically.

Mayoral Musings