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Digital Inclusion

Outreach Tactics that Cities Take to Address the Digital Divide Need to be Many and Varied

Elijah Labby

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Photo of Urban Institute Senior Policy Associate Richard Ezike courtesy www.drrcezike.com

June 4, 2020 — Cities must continuously adapt their strategies to provide technology services to the disadvantaged segments of their populations, said participants in an Urban Institute webinar Thursday.

The coronavirus has thrown a wrench in the career aspirations of millions across the United States. Since mid-March, 42 million of the United States’ 330 million residents have lost their jobs, at least temporarily, and research suggests that the coronavirus’s impact on low-income communities far outweighs that of their higher-income counterparts.

Consequently, government agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Agriculture have discussed problems of technological access for low-income and rural Americans at length.

The FCC has directed millions of dollars toward increasing access to broadband for disadvantaged peoples through several channels, including 5G auctions and internet provider subsidies.

Additionally, in late March, Congress passed the CARES Act, landmark legislation that provided $1200 checks to citizens with annual incomes lower than $75,000.

However, participants in the webinar said that city governments must expand and diversify their attempts to serve low-income Americans.

“Cities must adapt and shift strategies continually in order to reach as many residents as possible, especially to those who have historically had inequitable access to services,” said Richard Ezike, Senior Policy Associate at the Urban Institute.

These strategies can come in a variety of forms, the other participants said.

“A lot of our work with New York City public agencies has been really transformed because the city made a big commitment to distribute cell network-enabled tablets to more than 250,000 New York City schoolchildren so that kids could still engage in remote learning, even if their family didn't have a network or device at home,” said Chelsea Mauldin, Executive Director at the Public Policy Lab.

Dan Lurie, Chief of Policy at the Chicago Mayor's office, said that they could also extend subsidies to traditional utilities.

Chicago has taken a “pretty innovative approach to just heavily subsidize based on a number of federal programs ... that would allow us to automatically enroll and qualify folks who should be eligible for assistance to have their water bill subsidized by the city,” he said.

The pandemic’s long-term impact on marginalized communities is unclear, but government subsidies are increasing in number as officials scramble to shorten the United States' economic tumble.

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