The voter ID laws are a new way in which lower-income people are losing their ability to make themselves heard at the voting booth; but this is not the only way these people are losing their voice in the national conversation. These people are also the class least likely to have sufficient Internet access to enable them to express their political beliefs online. While the poor have speech rights, they are effectively shut out of online communication and the voting booth due to the stagnation of class mobility and a lack of adequate education.
Since the beginning of 2011, 14 states have passed restrictive voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud. These laws have cut early voting days, and require would-be voters to have proof of citizenship (such as birth certificates) to register, and to show government-issued photo IDs before casting their votes. Eight of the twelve swing states have either passed voter legislation or are in the process of doing so (3).
These laws pose significant obstacles to young people and, even more so, to minority groups in this upcoming presidential election. The Black Youth Project estimates that about 25 percent of African-Americans do not have the required identification, and depend on early voter days (1)(2). The result of these laws is students, elderly people, racial minority groups and the entire lower socioeconomic class may not be able to express their voices at the polls in pivotal states.
Many journalists and bloggers have made the point that this legislation is not necessary because documented in-person voter fraud, which these laws seek to prevent, has occurred only ten times over the last twelve years (4). However, I have yet to see the people who these laws directly affect express themselves in the blogosphere or on political forums. Why have we not heard from these people?
The likely answer is that the people who make up the lower-income brackets are not online because they have not mastered Internet technology in such a way that they are able to engage in political discourse, the core of their First Amendment rights (5). This disadvantage arises out of a lack of sufficient education and the stagnation of class mobility. These two factors work together to keep people of all races and ages stuck in the lowest socioeconomic tier and on the bad side of the “Digital Divide” (7).
Across the U.S., states have cut funding to public K-12 schools. Although schools located in affluent suburban areas are able to raise funds to make up for the budget cuts, those in densely packed urban areas are unable to do so. Inner city public schools frequently have overcrowded classrooms, out-of-date textbooks, not enough textbooks, and severely limited library and computer facilities. In addition, students and teachers must contend with the social issues plaguing the urban poor such as high unemployment, gang violence and drug use. Because of these factors, it is understandable that it is difficult for students at these schools to receive an equivalent education to those who go to school in wealthier areas. This is probably not new information to most people; however, the consequences of inadequate educational opportunities may be surprising. According to the U.S. Department of Education, as of 2003, about 44 million adults in the U.S. had literacy skills ranging from illiteracy to very limited literacy (10). Since then, the percentage of adults lacking sufficient literacy skills continues to hover around 23-24% (7)(9).
Although it seems painfully obvious to point out, it is worth highlighting the fact that in order to use the Internet for anything other than basic entertainment, a person needs to be able to read. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between a person’s literacy level and the complexity of tasks he or she perform online (5). For instance, a person with a high literacy level would be able to write a blog and engage in political discussions, whereas a person with a low literacy level may have difficulty finding information online. There is a threshold of reading ability and technological familiarity that a person has to meet in order to make use of the Internet in such a way to be able to improve his or her socioeconomic standing. People who have not been able to achieve a proficient level of literacy or a sufficient familiarity with computers and the Internet are, in effect, shut off from resources in the online world that could improve their lives. Furthermore, these people’s plights go largely unheard because they are not able to use the Internet, the most efficient tool for communicating to a mass audience (13).
In addition to lacking sufficient reading and writing abilities to express their voices online, this disadvantaged class may be unable to afford Internet access. Lack of education and inability to afford access can be seen as two sides of the same coin because there is a relationship between a person’s literacy level and his or her income bracket. It is very unlikely that someone with below basic literacy skills would be qualified for a job earning enough to afford good access to the Internet. Generally speaking, the higher paying jobs require education beyond high school or even college. A person who does not receive sufficient education that teaches him or her to read, write and process information is less likely to be able to go to college.
This is not to say that there are not people who are able to start society-altering businesses and earn staggering amounts of money without going to or completing college. Indeed, we like to hold up people such as Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the first billionaire John D. Rockefeller Sr. (a high school dropout) as examples to counter the opinion that if a person wants to be successful, he or she has to get a college degree. However, these people are the exception rather than the norm and a few outliers are not enough to counter numerous studies that show a direct connection between a person’s level of education and his or her annual income (11)(12).
The “Digital Divide” is the result of a class that does not have enough money or education to join the online world. To put it simply, this divide is between those who can afford and make effective use of the Internet, and those who cannot. The Internet is different from other modern technological developments because it “fundamentally alters the conditions for success across a wide range of economic, social and civic activities at both the individual and societal levels” (5). As an Internet user, you can appreciate the ease with which you are able to search for jobs, create a blog to share your ideas, and use it to run a business more efficiently. Since higher income people are more able to afford Internet access, they will be more likely to have it than those who are lower-income. The result of this is that people who cannot afford to be online and cannot effectively use the Internet simply do not exist in that world. Their businesses do not have the benefit of being online, they have greater difficulty finding jobs, and they are unable to voice their experiences to the online community.
The Covad Broadband Entrepreneur program demonstrates how the Internet is able to improve class mobility. This program provides low-income and disadvantaged small business owners a year of free Internet services as well as $500. The success that the business owners report after one year is striking. During this year, they were able to easily communicate with customers and process orders online, which increased customer satisfaction, profit and allowed owners to expand to different markets in other states. Having Internet access allowed a number of small business owners to make enough money to no longer qualify as low-income. Furthermore, it allowed other business owners to take online classes to earn certificates to improve their trades and make them more competitive (7). The results of this program tell us that if two new family run drug stores, one with Internet access and the other without, open in the same neighborhood, chances are that the one that is connected to the online world will be more successful.
While its usefulness is evident, Internet access remains unaffordable, or effectively unusable, for many. The result is that a significant percentage of our population is not moving forward with us into the Digital Age. The Internet does not have placeholders for people who are not online and does not remind us that there are millions of people who could share their opinions and stories. Because of this, these people are at risk of becoming invisible to people online and to those in politics that are influenced by Internet communities. The fact is that the majority of men and women whom this article concerns are unable to read it, and this underscores the tragedy of America’s poor.
Author’s Note: Big thank you to José Felipe at Creando Conciencia for encouraging me to write about this topic and also Liz at Eccentric for all her support, advice and input. This article also appears on ABetterPeople.com.
(5) Cooper, Mark, and Donald McGannon Center for Communications Research, Fordham Univeristy. “The Socio-Economics of Digital Exclusion in America.” 2010 TPRC: 38th Research Conference on Communications, Information and Internet Policy. Arlington, Virginia. 3 october 2010. Reading.
(6) Prieger, James E. and Hu, Wei-Min, “The Broadband Digital Divide and the Nexus of Race, Competition, and Quality” (August 17, 2007). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1008309 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1008309
(7) Baynes, Leonard M., ‘The Mercedes Divide?’: American Segregation Shapes the Color of Electronic Commerce. Western New England Law Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, November 2006; St. John’s Legal Studies Research Paper No. 06-0047. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=923564
(8) Oliff, Phil, and Michael Leachman. “New School Year Bring Steep Cuts in State Funding for Schools.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. DC: n.p., 2011. 1-16. Print.
(9) Hattyar, Harry. Illiteracy in America: Understanding and Resolving a Grave National Problem. San Francisco: Donpotter.net, 2005. Print.
(10) National Center for Education Statistics. “Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Findings of the National Adult Literacy Survey.” U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement. By Irwin Kirsch, Ann Jungeblut, Lynn Jenkins, and Andrew Kolstad. 3rd ed. Vols. 1993-275. N.p.: NCES, 2002. 1-176. Print