20 Percent of Adults in the US Do Not Use the Internet – Lack of Skills a Major Reason
There has been a $7 billion effort by the Obama administration to increase internet access throughout the country. Perhaps most staggering, though, is that almost 20 percent of American adults still don’t use the internet at home, work, school, or through a mobile device — a statistic that has generally remained the same since 2009.
“The job I’m trying to get now requires me to know how to operate a computer,” said Elmer Griffin, 70, a retired truck driver from Bessemer, Ala., who was recently rejected for a job at an auto-parts store because he was unable to use the computer to check the inventory. “I wish I knew how, I really do. People don’t even want to talk to you if you don’t know how to use the Internet.”
Mr. Griffin is among the roughly 20 percent of American adults who do not use the Internet at home, work and school, or by mobile device, a figure essentially unchanged since Barack Obama took office as president in 2009 and initiated a $7 billion effort to expand access, chiefly through grants to build wired and wireless systems in neglected areas of the country.
Administration officials and policy experts say they are increasingly concerned that a significant portion of the population, around 60 million people, is shut off from jobs, government services, health care and education, and that the social and economic effects of that gap are looming larger. Persistent digital inequality — caused by the inability to afford Internet service, lack of interest or a lack of computer literacy — is also deepening racial and economic disparities in the United States, experts say.
“As more tasks move online, it hollows out the offline options,” said John B. Horrigan, a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “A lot of employers don’t accept offline job applications. It means if you don’t have the Internet, you could be really isolated.”
Seventy-six percent of white American households use the Internet, compared with 57 percent of African-American households, according to the “Exploring the Digital Nation,” a Commerce Department report released this summer and based on 2011 data.
The figures also show that Internet use over all is much higher among those with at least some college experience and household income of more than $50,000. Low adoption rates among older people remain a major hurdle. Slightly more than half of Americans 65 and older use the Internet, compared with well over three-quarters of those under 65. In addition, Internet use is lowest in the South, particularly in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.
The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent. About $500 million from the package went toward helping people learn to use the Internet. Those programs were highly successful, though on a small scale, producing more than half a million new household subscribers to Internet service, Commerce Department statistics show.
“We recognize more work needs to be done to ensure that no Americans are left behind,” said John B. Morris Jr., director of Internet policy at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department. “Increasing the level of broadband adoption is a complex, multifaceted challenge with no simple, one-size-fits-all solution.”
The percentage of people 18 years and older in the United States who have adopted the Internet over the past two decades has grown at a rate not seen since the popularization of the telephone, soaring nearly fivefold, from 14 percent in 1995. Although that growth slowed in more recent years, it had still moved close to 80 percent of the population by the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, according to several academic and government studies.
Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Project, said that when the center asked nonusers if they believed they were missing out or were disadvantaged by not using the Internet, most of the older Americans said no, it was not relevant to them. “But when you excluded the seniors,” he added, “most people said, ‘Yeah, I feel like I’m not getting the access to all the things that I need.’ ”
Researchers say the recent recession probably contributed to some of the flattening in Internet adoption, just as the Great Depression stalled the arrival of home telephone service. But a significant portion of nonusers cite their lack of digital literacy skills as a discouraging factor.