The Class We Are Leaving Behind

Photo by Bryan “Gitgat” (http://www.flickr.com/photos/gitgat/)

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).

Photo by “paul nine-o” (http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulo2070/)

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.

Sources

(1) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/voter-id-laws-threatening-our-right-to-vote/2012/08/15/51a92dba-e6cb-11e1-936a-b801f1abab19_blog.html

(2) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/18/republican-voter-suppression-early-voting_n_1766172.html

(3) http://www.leftjustified.com/romney-obama-gallup-poll

(4) http://votingrights.news21.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

(11) http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

(12) http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011015.pdf

(13) http://www.cios.org/www/ejc/v7n297.htm

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13 thoughts on “The Class We Are Leaving Behind

  1. Great article and an impressive source list. Class divides and the perpetuation of inequality based on available resources and opportunites is doomed to be forever ignored outside of fringe media and the odd sociology or contemporary philosophy text. Thanks for writing.

    • Thank you for reading! It is frustrating that there are so many people who choose to ignore this problem. It feels like we are banging our heads against a wall to no avail. Maybe as the inequalities become more severe (which seems to be the direction things are going) people will notice and want to do something about it. Thank you for commenting! I always like to hear what you have to say.

      • Again many thanks for the kind words and the follow! Naomi Kline’s, “The Shock Doctrine” kind of touches on the idea of increasing inequality as a catalyst for change. More fences, preferential tax breaks, biased politics and unbalanced life opportunities must eventually lead to a sudden shift in the scales. Its a hefty tome but a good read. I look forward to your next post.

        • I will look into the “The Shock Doctrine.” Although I am against the increasing inequality, it seems like it would be a catalyst for positive change. Thank you so much for recommending that book. Also, thank you for the continuing support 🙂

  2. Good Morning Rebeca,
    First, I wanted to apologize for not commenting sooner, but I have a rule, that I refuse to comment unless I read every single word of a post and process the information in order to make a valid contribution to the discussion. Your article delivers much information that took my brain a while to process.
    My thoughts, which are so many, I will have to put in a list, as follows:
    1) You are exactly correct, people who do not have access to the internet are many, and their abilities are limited.
    2) People who cannot read well, also are limited
    3) Glad you shared your opinions on this subject – breathe of fresh air
    4) The libraries in my state have started offering free internet use, when I walk in there are NEVER available computers, its sad.
    5) My internet cost is $50.00 per month and my iPhone is about $100.00 per month (which has 3G through AT&T, I was able to get internet in the high mountains of WVA, with AT&T, unbelievable…..30 miles from nowhere.
    6) Thank you for the “thank you” at the end of this post.
    7) How in the world is a person supposed to find a job without the internet? Impossible almost!
    8) Why do we have to pay for the internet? Shouldn’t it be free to everyone and a computer?
    I mean really…hello world…everyone needs a computer and the internet to do anything now, even look up your bank account!
    9) The class divide in America is so sad.
    10) I know many single mothers who cannot pay for the internet and do not have a computer. They often ask to use mine, I always say yes….but, they do not have the same opportunities as myself – because they cannot check e-mail. Many employers only resspond via e-mail nowadays, and not a phone call. it is very sad….
    11) Again – just can’t understand why the internet is not FREE! IT SHOULD BE FREE TO ALL PEOPLE IN THE WORLD!
    12) The new laws about voting are crazy, and I don’t know how we can fix that.
    13) There is now a class divide that is this: Internet users and NON-INTERNET USERS
    14) People who can blog, have a voice, our voices are heard, as you stated people who do not have such capability are currently being robbed of their VOICE. This is not MORALLY RIGHT!

    Conclusion: The internet should be free to all people, people of every economic class should have a voice and be heard, loud and clear….

    Wonderful post Rebecca, and I love your opinions.

    • There is absolutely no need to apologize. I am honored that you take the time to read my posts and comment as well!

      I love that you organized your thoughts in list form.

      1) There are a lot of people who do not have Internet access. It is hard to come up with an exact figure because those people are pretty much off the grid.
      2) I was truly shocked at the number of people who cannot read. I didn’t think it was such a widespread problem.
      3) Thank you! In a way, I am not so surprised very few bloggers write about this topic – there is very little mainstream information on it. Most of it is in government reports which are difficult to find and make sense of.
      4) Wow! It is great that the libraries are offering free access. That is wonderful. Hopefully it will get more people online. But, as you say, it is very sad because it shows that there are so many people who are unable to afford their own access.
      5) Yikes – my phone and Internet are about the same. It does add up. That is remarkable that you could get access in the middle of nowhere. I have Verizon and I routinely lose reception and Internet driving through the mountains (not a place where you want to lose reception!)
      6) No problem! 🙂
      7) I was thinking the same thing. I can’t do anything without the Internet. I certainly wouldn’t be employed or remotely functional without it. Most places don’t have accessible job listings anywhere but the Internet (I am thinking of Apple). It does prevent a lot of people from potentially getting higher paying jobs.
      8) I am not sure why we have to pay for it, or why we have to pay so much. The FCC had the ability to make the Internet a universal service, but has gone out of its way to not recommend it to be added to the list. If it were a universal service, there would be a baseline level of access that every person in the U.S. would have. I am looking at possible reasons why there has been such resistance. There have been cases where people have sued Internet service providers for discriminatorily denying coverage in primarily minority areas… maybe there is a racist motive? These Internet service providers have HUGE lobbying power and could fear losing money by providing coverage to low-income areas or by having it on the Universal Service list.
      9) It is sad. It seems that there is a stigma on those in the lower income brackets.
      10) That is so sad. It is very kind of you to let them use your computer. Single mothers are at such a disadvantage in this country… I know that the Digital Age is making us all march forward and cease using previous means of communications such as the mail, but it seems wrong to leave so many people behind.
      11) I agree! 🙂
      12) I don’t know either. There are cases which have held that voting tests and taxes are unconstitutional. I have to think that these new laws are also unconstitutional.
      13) Very true. It is a new type of class distinction. There used to be an important class divide between people who had telephones in their house and those who didn’t. Although that class distinction still exists, it has become less important in the face of new technological innovations.
      14) I agree that this is morally wrong. It seems that there is a massive injustice that state governments are inflicting on their residents through these new laws. It also seems that this is only a continuation of a general sentiment society feels towards its lower-income members. The frustrating thing is that there does not seem to be any solution that would not require the majority of people who do have voices to start demanding substantive change.

      Thank you so much for your opinions and thoughts about this topic. You got me thinking about this issue in different ways and looking for a possible solution. It is always wonderful to hear what you have to say 🙂 Wishing you well!

I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas and questions! I will make sure to visit your blog (if you have one) and make substantive comments on your posts. Thank you for reading!

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