“Social determinants of health” is a hot topic among government and health system executives. The phrase usually refers to basic food, housing and transportation disparities that can lead adjoining ZIP codes to have drastically different life expectancies. But could lack of broadband Internet access also be considered a social determinant of health?
For many Americans during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, gaining access to high-speed Internet hinged on the temporary charity of private service providers, or perhaps required a family to drive to a more connected area.
Just as COVID-19 has made the Internet a necessity for the vast majority of Americans, it has impacted the short- and long-term plans of state broadband initiatives:
Like many schools throughout the US, when the coronavirus forced Santa Fe (NM) Public Schools (SFPS) to go online, this 12,000-student district quickly put together an implementation plan and went to work. Though Santa Fe has pockets of wealth, New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country, and the Santa Fe school district’s free and reduced lunch rate is 75 percent. But the district has received significant community support through a property tax-funded Educational Technology Note.
It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to reveal that the Internet is a basic human right. Yet in California, home to Silicon Valley, 20 percent of students are not connected in their homes. The solution is clear — build an infrastructure with public-private partnerships to enable systems-level change that addresses the root causes of the issue, creates coordination and empowers various groups across communities. Tech companies, state and local governments, school districts, ISPs, and community organizations all need to invest in a coordinated manner.
Stakeholders at all levels of government — federal, state, and local — are pivoting to stay flexible and get creative around the Census amid an unprecedented set of new challenges. While increasing online outreach is helpful to some, it’s also problematic in a place like Detroit, where many residents are on the challenging side of the digital divide, without access to technology or a reliable high-speed Internet connection at home.