Digital Access and Equity in Baltimore City 2017: A project of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and the Media Democracy Fund
The internet is arguably the most important communication tool of the 21st century. Public opinion research routinely indicates that people understand the internet’s importance, with one 2015 national survey showing that 58% of individuals polled agreed that “Internet access is essential, and everyone needs it in the 21st century economy.” This support cuts across political parties, with 69% of Democrats, 53% of Independents, and 47% of Republicans believing that internet access is essential.
While there seems to be strong agreement about the internet’s importance, this critical resource is not distributed evenly. Roughly 30% of households across America lack broadband internet access. The statistics are far more grim for some communities, as 59% of households with annual income below $20,000, 46% of African American households, 50% of Hispanic households, and 55% of individuals 65 and older lack internet access. These disparities carry consequences.
At a moment when 70% of teachers assign homework that requires the internet, children without broadband access at home are left without the ability to do their homework. Further, in an era when many job training and application materials (whether for jobs or schools) exist only in online form, a path toward economic stability is blocked for a large number of people who remain offline. The concern about internet access disparities led to the development of a field often referred to as digital inclusion or digital equity. The latter term is preferred by some scholars and advocates, as it aims to combine an interest in broadband internet access with concepts of distributive justice and equity.
Research suggests that Baltimore lags behind many cities when it comes to the number of households with home internet connections, with the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey ranking Baltimore 261 out of 296 cities surveyed.
According to this same source, an estimated 74,116 households in Baltimore have no internet access. The national research indicating that lower-income and racial minority households are disproportionately disconnected from the internet could translate into particular concerns for Baltimore. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey and 2015 population estimates, median household income in Baltimore City was $42,665, and per capita income was $25,290, which is significantly lower than the numbers for the state of Maryland. In addition, according to these same sources, Baltimore City is 62.6% African American and 4.7% Hispanic.
The Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and MDF commissioned The Raben Group (Raben), a national public affairs firm, to conduct a series of interviews on digital equity issues in Baltimore City and the surrounding area. Interviewees included leaders from the government, nonprofit, and private sectors. More specifically, interviewees included: political appointees and career staff within the Mayor’s office; individuals from the public health community; policymakers and technologists from the public school system; real estate and economic development experts; leaders at tech and makerspace organizations; executives from nonprofit and community based organizations (in areas such as education, housing, child care, and the arts); and small business owners.
Diversity (both racial and gender) of the interview pool was also carefully considered. The initial list of interviewees stemmed from conversations with the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation and MDF, but interviewees also suggested other names. This iterative process ensured that the final list of interviewees was not entirely determined by funders or outside consultants, minimizing the chance of a skewed respondent pool. In total, Raben interviewed 31 individuals in full-length interviews that lasted roughly an hour each.