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Student Research Guide: Economic Inequality and the Digital Divide: Home

Comparing internet access and economic inequality in the United States

Introduction to Economic Inequality and the Digital Divide

The digital divide is defined as the split among populations who either do or do not have reliable access and or the usage skills to access the internet or information computing technologies (ICTs). Access includes quality of connectivity, frequency of use, and whether the individual can have autonomy online. Usage skills include information seeking, privacy management, accessing content or media, and sharing of materials such as opinions or creative output. The digital divide negatively impacts those who do not have the means to acquire ICTs in many ways including not getting adequate education, housing, and healthcare. Having reliable access to and usage skills of ICTs is key to upward social mobility in our modern capitalistic society.

The opportunity to regulate the internet as a utility is a hotly debated topic called network neutrality. In our capitalistic economy,  internet service providers (ISPs) are not regulated by the government in order to allow for equitable access. Under recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, the opportunity to regulate these companies was opposed, another blow to network neutrality supporters, instead opponents argue the "invisible hand" of market economics and competition will eventually provide internet access to all Americans. This has proved not to be the case, with the digital divide still prevalent as ever without showing signs of bridging. In classic liberal capitalism, wealth inequality is an unfair but unavoidable outcome of unregulated markets. In order to balance the scales, government regulation is necessary to ensure all Americans, especially those in lower socioeconomic classes with greater disadvantages to upward social mobility have access to affordable and effective ICTs. 

Who are the disadvantaged populations in America who do not have reliable access to the internet and how are they affected?

Why do 19 million (6%) Americans not have access to fixed broadband or ICT; what is/are the dividing factor(s)?

How does economic inequality and capitalism affect access and usage of ICT and therefore broaden or narrow the digital divide?

Should the government regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the internet as a utility?

How does our capitalistic economy provide the foundation for lower income Americans to find themselves on the disconnect side of the digital divide?

Key Search Terms and Definitions (with links)

  • Digital DivideThe term “digital divide,” broadly speaking, refers to the gap between those individuals who have access to technology and those who do not. It sometimes refers to computer ownership or high-speed Internet access, but it is generally used to draw a distinction between those who have basic Internet access and those who do not.

  • Social MobilityOne of the central components of both politics and culture in the United States is the staunch belief in social mobility, that is, the ability to cross social-class and occupational boundaries.

  • Social Stratification: Social stratification refers to a system of divisions in society which has a number of characteristics. Stratification implies a series of layers, or strata.

  • Wealth Inequality or Wealth Gap

  • Net NeutralityNet neutrality is a broad term that refers to the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all content on the Internet equally rather than blocking, slowing, or otherwise interfering with access to websites, videos, applications, or other content.

  • ISP - Internet Service Provider

  • ICT - Information Communication Technology

  • FCC - Federal Communications Commission: Top regulatory government body for media in the United States

Best Databases/Search Engines

Broadband Connection by State


"Digital Divide." U.S. Census Bureau, 2015. Issues & Controversies, Infobase, Accessed 31 May 2020.

Map of households who have fixed broadband internet access. Notice the 10 states in grey which have the lowest rate of access, these same 10 states have the highest percentages of persons living in poverty in the entire country (CultureGrams, 2020).

Meyer, Stephen. "Wireless users by education, income, and technology type, 2009." Electronic America, 2011 ed., Gale, 2011. Information Plus Reference Series. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, Accessed 31 May 2020.

Below on the left is a table from 2009 which shows ICT usage across various income thresholds from Opposing Viewpoints, notice how the number of non-internet users dramatically increases as the income and education levels drop. On the right is a graph spanning 2002-2018 from Pew Research showing the percentage of Americans who have home based broadband internet. Notice how the lower income bracket trail the leading brackets by a margin of nearly double in the earlier years though a roughly 30% difference in the later part of 2017. Together, these data sets show the correlation between lower income households not having ICTs and higher income households do. This is how economic inequality is contributing to the digital divide.


Start Your Research Here

Reilly, Katie. “The Online Learning Divide.” TIME Magazine, vol. 195, no. 12/13, Apr. 2020, pp. 38–41. EBSCOhost,

The article discusses hurdles socio-economically disadvantaged students must clear when they have no access to broadband internet during the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. During the outbreak, many school transitioned to online learning styles to continue classes. The article calls for the FCC and Congress to increase regulations on ISPs and regulate the internet and bridge the digital divide. This is a timely example of how the digital divide is hindering lower socioeconomic class's upward mobility.

Ryder, Martin. "Digital Divide." Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, edited by Carl Mitcham, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 525-527. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, Accessed 31 May 2020. 

This article provided a good overview of the digital divide, the various ways populations are divided digitally, possible ways to overcome the divide and explores barriers to overcoming the divide.

Meyer, Stephen. "The Internet and the Electronic Age." Electronic America, 2011 ed., Gale, 2011. Information Plus Reference Series. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, Accessed 31 May 2020.

This article provides a great background on the internet, how it was developed and created, how users first started logging on, and trends of current usage across various ethnic groups, ages, socioeconomic class and income.

Walter, Andrew. “Wealth Gap: Overview.” Points of View: Wealth Gap, Sept. 2019, p. 1. EBSCOhost,

This article provides a great overview of the wealth gap, defining exactly what it is, how it has evolved over time and the implications it has on



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