Girls using Taco Bell wifi in Salinas
The widely circulated photo of two young girls in Salinas relying on Taco Bell’s wifi for their education. Image from Instagram

Twenty years ago, the same people who brought us Sesame Street first coined the term “digital divide” to describe the disparity between Americans with and without internet access. Sesame Workshop founder Lloyd N. Morrissett Jr. used the term to mean “a discrepancy in access to technology resources between socioeconomic groups” caused by low income, lack of access, and digital illiteracy.

Two decades into the 21st Century, the coronavirus pandemic magnified these economic, educational, and social disparities in the worst possible way. COVID-19 forced many critical services online such as telehealth, delivery of groceries and other goods, community engagement, and even entertainment. Connectivity became a lifeline, but also a dividing line between segments of our society.

In my role as CEO of Serving Seniors, we’ve worked to correct these disparities for 50 years. Our mission remains challenging. For older adults without home access to the internet, closing facilities like our Gary and Mary West Wellness Center with its cyber café and people ready to assist users meant cutting off our clients from lifesaving services. Finding new ways to stay connected and continue delivering our vital services demanded our determination and creativity.

Even as the miracle of multiple vaccines offers hope, older Americans most threatened by the coronavirus face the most difficulty making appointments due to limited online access. Longstanding systemic problems will slow down our ultimate recovery and continue to leave significant portions of the population behind unless we confront this situation.

Second only to San Jose, 93% of all San Diego County households have internet connectivity according to the U.S. Census. In one of America’s most connected cities many of us are online 24 hours a day.

Advances in technology permitted many of us to remain employed and remain connected with family and friends. Zoom and Skype have forever changed the way we will work, live, and play into the future.

The lack of connectivity is tied as much to poverty as it is to any particular generation, especially for 25 million Americans 60 and older living 250% below the federal poverty level. These low-income and homeless seniors we assist through Serving Seniors often have to decide whether to buy food, medicine, or pay a utility bill. Paying $20 for basic internet service isn’t an option.

Here’s the ultimate irony. Many of these seniors are eligible for assistance programs offering help with the costs of rent, food, and other basic needs. But without internet access, they struggle to apply, or don’t even bother. The National Council on Aging reports three out of five eligible seniors are missing out on benefits — nearly five million people.

Solving this problem goes way beyond giving seniors the ability to shop on Amazon. Broadband internet access has become an essential service. The pandemic’s fallout shined a light on this critical issue. Digital connectivity is critical to health and wellness for all disadvantaged American, but especially our older population.

President Joe Biden’s proposed $2.25 trillion infrastructure package promises to reduce the cost of broadband for low-income individuals in an effort to make broadband more affordable. 

“We’ll make sure every single, every single, American has access to high-quality, affordable, high-speed internet,” said Biden introducing the proposal. “When I say affordable, I mean it. Americans pay too much for internet service. We’re going to drive down the price for families who have service now and make it easier for families who don’t have affordable service to be able to get it now.”

Investing now in broadband access has positive implications for society, including savings in healthcare spending and improved socioeconomic outcomes. As our population ages, all of us will eventually confront the challenge of staying current and connected with society through technology. Unless we close the digital divide now, the price tag and the damage done will only grow and leaving scores of seniors and other disadvantaged Americans behind.

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.

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