March 8, 2019
Last month on the blog, we examined possible relationships between internet access and working from home, but also noted the potential of demographic and economic disparities in internet access that aren’t apparent in total population access percentages. This month we’re taking a closer look, looking at internet access in Champaign County by race and ethnicity, labor force status, and educational attainment.
First, for the sake of comparison, we’ll review the internet and computer access of all Champaign County residents.
U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Table B28008; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; <http://factfinder2.census.gov>; (5 March 2019).
Almost 94 percent of Champaign County residents have a computer, and almost 85 percent have an internet subscription of some kind, either broadband or dial-up. Roughly six percent have no computer, and roughly nine percent have a computer, but not an internet subscription.
Note that this data covers only whether households have a computer and an internet subscription: some of those individuals without a computer may have a smartphone, tablet, or other device, and use one of these other devices to access the internet. We can’t assume that individuals who appear in this dataset as being without a computer or an internet subscription have no internet access at all, but we can posit that their access may be less comprehensive in that some online resources may be less functional on mobile devices.
Next, we’ll take a look at whether there are disparities in computer access and internet subscription by race and ethnicity.
U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Table B28009A, B28009B, B28009C, B28009D, B28009E, B28009F, B28009G, B28009I; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; <http://factfinder2.census.gov>; (5 March 2019).
According to the 2013-2017 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Estimates, there is considerable disparity by race and ethnicity in access to computers. The three populations with the highest percentages of computer ownership were the Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone population at 100.0 percent, the Asian alone population at 98.8 percent, and the Two or More Races population at 98.2 percent. The two populations with the lowest percentages of computer ownership were the Some Other Race alone population, at 80.5 percent, and the Black or African American alone population, at 86.8 percent.
Access to internet subscriptions also showed disparities by race and ethnicity. Over 31 percent of the Some Other Race alone population had a computer but no internet subscription; this was also true for 16.2 percent of the Hispanic or Latino population, 15.0 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native alone population, and 14.7 percent of the Black or African American alone population.
Computer and internet subscription access also varied by labor force status.
U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Table B28007; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; <http://factfinder2.census.gov>; (5 March 2019).
Individuals who were employed were most likely to have a computer (96.3 percent) and least likely to be without an internet subscription (8.8 percent). Individuals who were unemployed were less likely to have a computer than those who were employed (92.9 percent), and were most likely to have a computer but not have an internet subscription (16.3 percent). Individuals not in the labor force were least likely to have a computer (88.5 percent).
There was a clear trend in computer and internet subscription access by educational attainment.
U.S. Census Bureau; American Community Survey, 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Table B28006; generated by CCRPC staff; using American FactFinder; <http://factfinder2.census.gov>; (5 March 2019).
Individuals whose highest educational attainment was less than high school graduate or equivalency were least likely to have a computer (72.2 percent) and most likely to be without an internet subscription (14.2 percent). Individuals whose highest educational attainment was at least a bachelor’s degree were most likely to have a computer (97.6 percent) and least likely to be without an internet subscription (6.2 percent).
Breaking this data down into greater detail shows that computer and internet subscription disparities do exist by race, ethnicity, labor force status, and educational attainment in Champaign County. But before we get to what we can take from this, there are a few assumptions we can’t make based on this data.
As we noted above, this data doesn’t cover smartphones as a primary means of internet access, so it’s important to keep in mind that what may be different among the analyzed populations is not whether they can access the internet, but how. Also, as we’ve noted a lot, correlation isn’t causation. We can see that individuals who are unemployed are more likely to also have limited access to computers and internet subscriptions, and it’s obvious that the internet is an excellent job-hunting resource, but this analysis of this data cannot support a conclusion that limited internet access causes unemployment, or vice versa.
That aside, there are significant lessons to be learned here. One is the importance of ensuring that online resources offer user experiences of the same quality regardless of device: users on computers, smartphones, and tablets should all be able to have an easy, intuitive, and visually engaging experience. Another is that programs to improve internet access can and should be tailored based on a community’s needs and circumstances. This data also reinforces the importance of facilities like public libraries, which provide access to computers and the internet and can be critical community resources for those who do not have other access options.
Furthermore, good planning relies on public input and requires public outreach. Public outreach strategies that are online-only and do not include in-person, mailed, or other non-digital options can inadvertently present participation barriers to or even exclude individuals who may have more limited internet access. Online avenues of public participation can be beneficial when used in conjunction with other methods, but shouldn’t replace them. Understanding internet access within a community can help agencies shape better programs and further their commitment to equitable public outreach.