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Structural Poverty and the Non-Adoption Tax

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I recently spoke with Alice Loy, co-founder of the Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship. GCCE and the New Mexico State Library are partners in Fast-Forward New Mexico (FFNM), a BTOP-funded project. Among other things, the project provides for 64 hours of free Internet training in 17 libraries around the state. She pointed out the sad irony that while Internet literacy is a key ingredient for fighting poverty in New Mexico, building up that literacy is more expensive in poor communities than in wealthy ones:

We have barriers that we recognize that are particular to our project, like the number of laptops or how many hours it takes to drive to a place. But the next set of barriers is structural poverty, because your cultural center doesn't have what XYZ Corporation might have. Here's a funny thing: half the outlets in the training room in Gallup didn't work. And here we are plugging in all these laptops and drawing so much power. So that's a structural poverty issue: that's an issue of poor people getting less money to solve their problems than people of wealth. Well, that trickles right down into physical infrastructure.

I've recently been reading a fascinating report by the Social Science Research Council, Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities. The report examines the issues — economic, social, governmental, educational — that affect broadband adoption in underprivileged areas. It also discusses the implications of broadband non-adoption, both on individuals and on communities. In the introduction, the writers outline one of the key consequences of non-adoption:

… Our work … strongly suggests that price alone isn't a sufficient factor to explain — or an adequate lever to address — the gap in home broadband adoption. Communities with a large percentage of non-adopters face multiple, overlapping challenges to broadband use, from skill and language barriers, to problems with providers, to overburdened community intermediaries and overstretched public Internet access points.

The chief dilemma in these communities is that these forms of exclusion reinforce each other. Economic marginalization coincides with non-adoption in predictable ways. But as the Internet becomes a critical tool for job-hunting, non-adoption itself becomes a driver of economic marginalization. As online services expand, lack of access raises the relative costs of a wide range of activities, from shopping, to navigating city services, to communicating with family members — creating a de facto non-adoption tax.

The non-adoption tax works on a few levels. The individual level is relatively straightforward: it's easier to get a good job, a good mobile phone plan, or a good loan if you have readily available Internet access than if you don't. On a deeper level, the non-adoption tax plagues neighborhoods, towns, and cities in toto: less broadband adoption means fewer affordable choices for broadband access. The vicious cycle of poverty and inadequate access leads to the kinds of challenges Alice told me about.

The Missoula Public Library serves the small city of Missoula, Montana, as well as a geographically huge surrounding area. Thanks to the BTOP-funded Enhancing Computer Centers at Montana Public Libraries project, MPL is now in the process of launching a mobile computer lab that'll set up shop in various country schools in Montana, bringing Internet access and training to more of MPL's jurisdiction. As director Honore Bray explained to me, in some cases, the mobile lab will be the only Internet access available in these communities:

… We are going to have to look at something like a [satellite dish], because the areas we are going into don't have regular access. They can't even use cell phones, because there are no cell phone towers. So in a lot of those areas, we are going to need to have something different than just what the local ISPs have. So the police have given us a few ideas of what they use in those very rural areas, and we are going to have to start there …

As far as local ISPs go, it would behoove them to give free access to libraries. In the communities I came from before, the local ISPs provided my library with free Internet access. And when people learn how to use a computer at a library, and then they decide to buy their own, and they know that their access has been coming through this certain ISP, that is who they choose to buy Internet access from. So it is a good marketing tool.

But the one problem in Montana is that there is not enough competition. So it doesn't spur them on to provide free access, because some of them are the only game. I live in the country, and I have two choices: it's either through my television satellite provider, or through my telephone company. Those are the only two choices I have for Internet access, and it costs $100 for the bundled service from either one.

By bringing individuals access to needed online services, projects like FFNM and MPL's mobile lab can help those individuals lower their own non-adoption tax. But in areas where affordable access isn't available, the residual, community-wide effects of non-adoption take much longer to combat.

Photos: Alice Loy, Honore Bray

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