Keys to unlocking universal digital access
Achieving universal digital access will require a three-pronged strategy. The first prong is universal internet connection by providing every home with reliable fixed broadband or wi-fi as public utilities.
The second prong is greater universal provision of computing devices through automatic and default inclusion. Many low-income households are mobile-only or mobile-first, with computers not a priority due to their higher costs. Mobile devices, however, have limited utility, especially for online learning and work purposes. Making computer ownership affordable and guaranteed can shift low-income households’ usage patterns.
Computing needs can be built into school registration and subsidies as is commonly the case for school textbooks and uniforms. They could also be included in computations of welfare pay-outs or training assistance as part of basic expense needs. Gradated levels of subsidies according to household size and income could be introduced.
The third prong is universal digital literacy through systematic public education. Some donors have been reluctant to provide computers to needy families, wary that they will fall prey to online risks such as pornography or gambling. The solution is not to deny these families a vital resource that the rest of society benefits from, but to equip them with the competencies to navigate the online world safely and productively.
The troubling question of deservingness
Above all, poor digital literacy should not be used as justification to deny low-income families digital access. Underlying such arguments is the dicey issue of deservingness. Sceptics aver that people are poor because of individual failings, that they will take the unearned resources for granted, and make bad choices in their usage. Such perceptions unfortunately neglect the fact that poverty and inequality today have as much to do with unequal opportunities, discrimination and structural barriers as individual deficits. They forget that in general everyone makes bad choices from time to time and then hold needy individuals to greater scrutiny.
Perhaps a more relevant question is whether the super-wealthy deserve to gain to the extent that they do from society and not contribute their proportionate share. The World Inequality Report 2018 found that the top one percent of income earners in the world captures 20 percent of economic growth, while the bottom 50 percent captures only 9 percent. Since the 1980s, the share of national income going to capital has grown, while the share going to labor has decreased. One big factor for the declining labor share of national income is the rise of “superstar” companies, many of them tech-related, that have captured the vast share of profit margins of all types of companies.
These highly unequal trends make for a sobering background to the lack of digital access in low-income communities. A technology divide is at the heart of it. Digital access is a game changer and has become a need that most people take for granted and an absolute necessity for disadvantaged persons if they are to have some fair chance to catch up. It is time to explore seriously the imposition of wealth and technology taxes to fund universal digital access. The digital gaps highlighted during this pandemic will have to be addressed, or information poverty will lead to income poverty in a technology-intensive world.