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Evidence Matters: Fall 2016, Message from the Assistant Secretary

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Katherine M. O’Regan, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development Message from the Assistant Secretary

This issue of Evidence Matters discusses digital inequality and efforts to promote digital inclusion, especially as they relate to housing and community development. In recent years, substantial public and private investment in broadband infrastructure has largely closed gaps in the availability of high-speed Internet among U.S. households, although divides in infrastructure still exist between urban and rural areas. The most significant divides are in adoption — primarily because of a lack of affordability, inadequate connection speed and quality, and inequalities in digital literacy. Gaps in Internet use by age, race, educational attainment, and income persist, although they are shrinking. Analysis of American Community Survey and HUD administrative data reveals that HUD-assisted renters are particularly likely to be on the wrong side of digital divides. HUD-assisted households are less likely to have in-home Internet access than unassisted renters (43% and 69%, respectively), and HUD-assisted households in public housing and multifamily housing have lower connection rates than HUD-assisted households as a whole. These divides continue even as the Internet becomes increasingly necessary for an expansive range of tasks, from completing homework to applying for a job. The costs of these disadvantages are borne by individuals and families in the form of lost educational and employment opportunities and limited access to information as well as by society in the form of unrealized economic productivity.

HUD has taken steps to reduce digital disparities for assisted households, particularly recently. In 2015, HUD launched the ConnectHome initiative, a collaborative public-private effort to make free or low-cost broadband services and digital literacy supports available to families with school-aged children living in HUD-subsidized housing. ConnectHome started in 27 cities and 1 Tribal nation and could be scaled up to serve HUD-subsidized housing communities nationwide and possibly extended to HUD-assisted households using housing choice vouchers.

The Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) is responsible for evaluating the progress of the ConnectHome initiative. Early efforts have focused on establishing a baseline estimate of the in-home connectivity of households with school-aged children and identifying barriers for unconnected households through a survey of residents in ConnectHome communities. A second survey asks ConnectHome subscribers about issues related to digital literacy. Information about households’ ability and comfort in using the Internet for education, employment searches, and health care can inform efforts to educate households on using the Internet more effectively. Finally, focus group discussions with residents, public housing agency (PHA) staff, and local leaders in ConnectHome communities will yield a better understanding of whether the initiative is achieving its goals. Key research questions for residents include what barriers remain that might keep households from subscribing to broadband service and whether and how subscribing households benefit from connectivity. Discussions with PHA staff and local leaders will focus on lessons learned regarding the structuring of public-private partnerships and implementation that can inform efforts in future ConnectHome sites.

In an increasingly Internet-dependent society, full digital inclusion for HUD-assisted households, and low-income households generally, is essential for ensuring access to opportunity and improved quality of life.

— Katherine M. O’Regan, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research


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The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.