1 in 5 Americans Don’t Use the Internet

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I’m sure it’s hard for members of LinkedIn reading this post to imagine that 1 in 5 Americans – about 60 million people – don’t use the Internet. Who are they? Why aren’t they online? What does it mean to the rest of us?

The demographics of people who don’t use the Internet won’t surprise you. According to a report released last summer by the U.S. Commerce Department, low-income African Americans and Hispanics and those who live in rural areas are less likely to be connected than affluent, urban, white or Asian American individuals. Add to the list of the unconnected seniors and people with disabilities.

What might surprise you is that 98.2% of us live in areas where wired or wireless broadband Internet access is available – up from just 4% in 2000.

So why aren’t nearly all Americans online?

One reason is that most unconnected Americans do not have broadband Internet where it’s most convenient: at home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s July 2011 Current Population Survey Computer and Internet Use Supplement, about 30% of U.S. households lack Internet access.

When asked why, 48% reported that they have no need or interest; 28% said it’s too expensive; and 13% said they don’t have a computer or that they have an inadequate computer.

Many people without Internet access at home are undeterred: they go to public libraries, someone else’s house, school, work, Internet cafes and restaurants with WiFi, or community centers. But according to a study of public libraries, up to a third of libraries say they lack adequate Internet connections to meet demand. More report that they cannot provide the access their patrons truly need.

The fact remains: 60 million people in America do not go online. Here are five hard realities for them that most of us take for granted.

1. Jobs: Unconnected Americans can’t find and apply for jobs online.

Today many employers post job openings on their websites and provide resources and guidance for job applicants. One example is Wal-Mart, which maintains an online Hiring Center that encourages applicants to fill out their applications online. The Center also has a section answering common questions and offers both application and technical help. Visitors can choose between English and Spanish language versions of the site.

In addition, employers increasingly expect applicants to fill out applications online and be able to communicate via email. Some employers even require it. The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) is just one example of the latter.

There also are numerous sites that aggregate job listings from many employers. They offer search capabilities that allow visitors to apply filters to narrow down their job searches. Some of them allow applicants to apply for jobs or request information from different employers without ever leaving the site.

Of course, these job resources are available only to people who use the Internet.

2. Housing: Unconnected Americans can’t do research and learn about available housing in their communities online.

As with jobs and job information, unconnected Americans must look to offline resources to find out about available housing in their communities and to apply for it.

3. Government Services: Unconnected Americans can’t access government services online.

Federalstate and local governments increasingly offer services online, from finding correct forms, applying for unemployment or Social Security benefits or finding government subsidized or affordable housing. Most government services also can be accessed in person at government offices. But many unconnected Americans live at great distances from government offices and may lack transportation.

4. Health: Unconnected Americans can’t research and manage their health online or sign up for insurance on public health insurance exchanges.

According to research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 72% of adult Americans Internet users reported that they look online for health information within the past year. The most commonly researched topics are diseases or specific conditions, treatments and procedures, and doctors and other practitioners.

In addition, even though public health insurance exchanges offer telephone application processes for purchasing health insurance, call-in wait times can be lengthy – for example, currently over an hour in Minnesota and about 30 minutes for Nevada.

5. Education: Unconnected Americans can’t learn new things online that can help them save money, get work or earn degrees and certifications.

The Internet is a resource for learning just about anything – definitions and explanations of terms, preparation courses for placement tests and current news and information, to name just a few. Study can be informal – how-to videos for home repair – or formal – the U.S. Department of Labor and most states offer free web-based training in jobs skills and other resources for job seekers.

The Internet represents a tremendous opportunity to learn for people of all ages and at all stages of their lives – but only if they are connected.

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While there are offline workarounds for most of these online activities, a crucial element to consider in all of them is time. Time is a limited resource for all us, but for low-income Americans who are seeking work, housing, help for health conditions or educational opportunities, “time is money” is especially true.

The divide between connected Americans and those who aren’t, however, is far more than an issue of productivity.

Unconnected Americans are less prepared for jobs in today’s globally competitive workforce. They must go the extra mile to be active participants in their local communities or informed voters in our democracy. They face barriers to having their voices heard.

In other words, they have less chance of reaching their full potential – and that hurts all of us.

[Photo Credit: David Morris on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]

This article appeared on LinkedIn on January 30th, 2013 and can be viewed there by clicking here.
Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise, a non-profit whose mission is to vastly improve the opportunity for all Americans to learn by accelerating innovation in education through technology and research. From 2009-2013, Cator was Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.