A New Approach to Closing the Digital Divide: Direct Giving
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
A New Approach to Closing the Digital Divide: Direct Giving
In 2014, Tiffani Ashley Bell read an article in The Atlantic detailing how the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) was turning off the water to homes of customers that had fallen behind on their bills. In the wake of declaring bankruptcy, the city was looking for any and all ways to cut down on its bad debt. That's why the DWSD started a campaign to cut service to customers more than two months behind on their bills or with debts greater than $150.
Bell couldn’t stomach the fact that Americans in the 21st century were forced to get by without something as elemental as water—something she and many others regard as a human right. So, she coded her way to a solution—a website for donors to directly cover people’s water bills. Her project—named the Human Utility—has since expanded beyond Detroit and into Baltimore. Thanks to the Human Utility, nearly 5,000 people have acted on their belief that water is a human right by directly supporting 1,200 families in need of assistance with their water bills.
What’s the upshot from Tiffani’s story? Where communities cannot access the basic elements of a healthy and prosperous life, technological solutions that eliminate or, at least, substantially reduce the transaction costs of reallocating capital from the “haves” to the “have nots” should be implemented. These solutions need not come from an establish tech company or even a startup, something as lean as a nonprofit can make this sort of solution tenable and effective.
How should we apply this lesson in the COVID-19 era? We need a direct giving platform for donors to cover people’s broadband bills, including upgrades to higher-speed services. Covering these bills will ensure that service is maintained throughout the school year, for example. Covering upgrades will give families the uploads and download speeds required to let kids learn, parents upskill, and grandparents hop on Zoom—all essential activities to combat the Homework Gap, unemployment, and social isolation, respectively. That’s why I’m looking for any and all help to build No One Left Offline—a crowdsourced approach to providing access to high-speed Internet. But first, let’s walk through why direct giving is so important now—a time in which even our most progressive governments are paralyzed by budget cuts and infighting.
The Human Utility’s approach to direct giving is not novel but it’s worth applying to a broader array of fundamental needs. Direct giving has made a difference in areas as sensitive and as significant as financial coverage for reproductive services and bail.
Take, for example, the Women's Medical Fund. The Philadelphia-based abortion fund ensures that financial insecurity doesn't eliminate a women's right to choose. Though federal law may permit equal access to abortions, that access is not equal in practice as states impose various restrictions that tend to disproportionately impact vulnerable communities: the unintended pregnancy rate among low-income women was more than five times greater than those with moderate to high financial means. Low-income women are unlikely to see laws change in their favor amid the current political climate. That goes to show why direct giving services are so important: an anonymous donor may not change laws but they can still change lives by something as simple as a donation on an app to a woman simply looking to act on her rights.
Similarly, the Minnesota Freedom Fund enables indigent individuals in the criminal justice system to exercise the same degree of freedom as those with far greater financial resources. The fund connects those with means to those facing high bail amounts. Absent such a fund, many more individuals would be exposed to the injustices and immense costs of pretrial detention. Prison sentences for low-risk defendants last, on average, 2.84 times longer if they were detained for the entire pretrial period. A report from the Vera Institute of Justice determined that jailing people unnecessarily not only increased crime generally but also made recidivism more likely.
Furthermore, pretrial detention generates ever-growing ripples of negative externalities that emanate out from the defendant and touch everyone in their community. The resulting tsunami of societal costs makes clear that direct giving is most beneficial when it targets the headwaters of a problem. Consider that in New Orleans, 80 percent of people jailed due to their inability to make bail are black—of those able to pay, 88 percent of money bail was paid by black families—the same black families that make 63 percent less than white families. As a result, every time a black defendant is forced to pay bail beyond their means, the criminal justice system is perpetuating inequalities with detrimental consequences. Direct giving in the form of bond funds may not attract as much financial support as foundations focused on helping defendants transition back into society, but direct giving at the bail stage may reduce the need for such transitory assistance in the first place.
The Human Utility, Women’s Medical Fund, and Philadelphia Bail Fund are all about reallocating resources via direct giving to expand options for those in financial straits. In a similar way, those without stable, speedy Internet access are denied the options afforded to those who surf the web with ease and, therefore, spot jobs earlier, gain new skills faster, and expand their networks more efficiently. Eliminating this digital divide requires addressing two problems: access to broadband (i.e. the extent to which broadband networks are available) and adoption of broadband (i.e. whether households become broadband subscribers).
Some have tried to solve both aspects of the digital divide by donating to political campaigns—in the hopes of making legislators in Washington, state capitals, and city halls more familiar with and keen to act on the digital divide. That’s too downstream of a solution. For progress on the digital divide to be made via political donations, your candidate will need to win, they’ll need to be part of a majority in their legislative chamber, and a friendly executive will need to OK any legislation they pass.
Some donate to foundations seeking to close the digital divide. Though these organizations do tremendous work in informing legislators and pressuring companies to expand access and increase adoption, they're still a downstream approach to making the Internet more available and affordable. Just as the effectiveness of a political donation is contingent on a multitude of variables, donations to foundations seeking longer-term solutions to the digital divide face long odds in helping those in immediate need of affordable Internet today.
Advocates for Universal Basic Internet, such as myself, won’t be able to solve the access problem in the near future. In other words, there are too many factors at play and too many stakeholders at the table for individual donors to have a meaningful impact on building broadband networks across America. The infrastructure required and level of investment necessary to, for example, lay fiber in rural communities is beyond the scope of an individual donor and outside the time horizon of our current emergency.
That’s why, in this period of critical need, individual donors should prioritize helping those who could access the Internet, if only it were affordable. That’s why the best means for closing the digital divide is direct giving—direct payment of broadband bills for millions of Americans on the financial edge and, therefore, unable to maintain their subscriptions. That’s why I hope you’ll join me in building out No One Left Offline. I’m just an essayist, but with the help of the Benton community, I know we can create an emergency exchange. In this exchange, folks in need of financial assistance could quickly and easily upload their bills and service upgrade requests with the aid of community service organizations or over their phones. On the other end, affluent individuals would be able to directly donate to those bills and, therefore, have an immediate and direct effect on the digital divide.
Direct giving is not a long-term solution for the digital divide. The federal government can and must treat high-speed Internet access as a fundamental right in recognition of broadband’s centrality to economic mobility and self-actualization. But when the government grinds to a halt, individuals must rise to the occasion. No One Left Offline, once built, will foster that opportunity by allowing individual actors to reduce the substantial and growing inequality created by the digital divide.
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Kevin Frazier is pursuing a Masters of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a J.D. at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He's the founder of No One Left Offline. Send him any feedback @kevintfrazier
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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