Philadelphia continues its race to the bottom when it comes to poverty, with new reports over the past few weeks that show a grim picture getting grimmer. Already, the city suffers from a 26 percent poverty rate. Last week, a new, five-year federal survey showed white poverty exploding in the city, with sharp declines in income in certain neighborhoods, and sharp rises in others – a dynamic solidifying income inequality.
This week, another census report showed that the city has one of the lowest rates of internet penetration among the 25 largest cities. Philadelphia’s broadband penetration rate is 71.6 percent, compared with the national rate of 83.5 percent last year. And it’s a number moving in the wrong direction, according to the Inquirer report on the findings.
It might be easy to argue that the reports on scarcity of food, jobs, and affordable housing are far more worrisome than the ability to access the internet, and that’s true, but they are all intertwined as essential to making sure economic opportunities aren’t limited to only a percentage of the population.
While many low-income people have smartphones with internet access, broadband access is necessary for such functions as job applications and homework assignments.
Internet access is essential to individual economic viability. Racial disparities underlying the digital divide also make this a civil rights issue. In fact, the United Nations last year claimed internet access to be a human right. That’s a powerful statement and must be taken seriously if we’re going to halt the creation of a permanent underclass.
This digital divide is not just a problem for Philadelphia; it’s a problem for the country. But the presence of Comcast’s world headquarters here lends an ironic edge to the problem – one that the company should consider taking more seriously.
The company routinely touts its “Internet Essentials” program, which provides low-cost internet service to low-income families. It recently expanded access to seniors, veterans, and public housing residents. The company, however, is maddeningly opaque on the numbers of current enrollees; it will only say that 49,000 Philadelphia households have signed up over the life of the program, which began in 2011, right before Comcast acquired NBCUniversal. (While poverty rates are determined by family size, more than 250,000 Philadelphia households make less than $35,000 per year, according to the Census.) While Comcast is no longer obligated to offer the program, it still does. But the size and seriousness of the divide in Philadelphia says more needs to be done.
It's not up to Comcast to close this divide alone. But it’s large enough to wield serious influence with other technology companies, to come up with more effective solutions to expanding access to technology.
In the city, large numbers of those without broadband take advantage of libraries, but the Kenney administration is still figuring out how to keep all branches open seven days a week. (Maybe a large, Philadelphia-based internet provider could dramatically expand its impact by helping to solve that problem.)