Challenges to Achieving Digital Equity or “Why Covered Populations Are Covered”

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Digital Beat

Challenges to Achieving Digital Equity or “Why Covered Populations Are Covered”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Digital Equity Act recognizes eight “covered populations” as disproportionately experiencing digital inequity. These groups are to be a focus of efforts supported through grants and planning processes:

  1. Individuals living in households with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line.
  2. Individuals 60 years of age or older.
  3. Veterans.
  4. Individuals with disabilities.
  5. Individuals with barriers to the English language (including English language learners and those with low literacy).
  6. Members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
  7. Individuals residing in rural areas.
  8. Individuals incarcerated in non-federal correctional facilities.

These groups experience difficulties accessing the internet for varied yet overlapping reasons. In this and upcoming articles, we look at data that explains why these populations are being targeted for digital equity efforts.

Households With Low Incomes

In the United States, people living in poverty tend to be clustered in certain regions, counties, and neighborhoods rather than evenly spread across the nation. Research has shown that living in areas where poverty is prevalent creates impediments beyond people’s individual circumstances. Concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, and unemployment. As a result, economic conditions in very poor areas not only limit opportunities for poor residents but also replicate themselves.

An important dimension of poverty is its persistence over time. There are 341 persistently poor counties in the United States (comprising 10.9 percent of all U.S. counties). The geography of persistent-poverty counties is strongly associated with historical patterns of rural settlement going back centuries. Historically, the large majority (approximately 85 percent) of persistent-poverty counties are nonmetro, accounting for about 15 percent of all nonmetro counties.

Poverty does not strike all demographics equally

  • In 2018, 10.6 percent of men and 12.9 percent of women lived in poverty in the United States. The poverty rate for married couples in 2018 was only 4.7 percent—but the poverty rate for single-parent families with no wife present was 12.7 percent, and for single-parent families with no husband present, it was 24.9 percent.
  • In 2021, the poverty rate for people living with a disability was 24.9 percent. That’s about 4 million people living with a disability in poverty.
  • In 2021, the poverty rate for seniors was over ten percent.
  • According to 2021 U.S. Census data, the highest poverty rate by race is found among Native Americans (24.3 percent), with Blacks (19.5 percent) having the second-highest poverty rate, and Hispanics (of any race) having the third-highest poverty rate (17.1 percent). Whites had a poverty rate of 10 percent, while Asians had a poverty rate of 9.3 percent.
  • The USDA estimated that 10.2 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2021. This means that approximately 13.5 million households had difficulty with access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. Rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line.

Some 15 percent of home broadband users in the United States said they had trouble paying for their high-speed internet service during the coronavirus outbreak. That includes 34 percent of those with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year.

For adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year, roughly a quarter (24 percent) say they don’t own a smartphone, and more than four in ten do not have home broadband services (43 percent) or a desktop or laptop computer (41 percent). By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a quarter of home broadband users with annual household incomes ranging from $30,000 to just under $50,000 said they had trouble paying for broadband service, as did 8 percent with household incomes ranging from $50,000 to $74,999.

A 2021 national survey of low- and lower-middle-income households asked these households what they pay for service and to identify monthly service fees that would be too expensive for their budgets. That survey found a range of perspectives on affordability:

  • 40 percent of households whose incomes were below $50,000 annually said they could not afford any monthly fee;
  • 22 percent reported that $25 per month would be a comfortable figure for their household budgets; and
  • 38 percent said that figures that align roughly with lower-cost market rates (between $55 and $70 per month) would be affordable for them.

An excerpt from Visions of Digital Equity (August 2023) available at

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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