The Digital Divide: A Persistent Challenge for the AAPI Community

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It’s been over a year since the pandemic upended the lives of people across the world. For many of us across the United States, it has been a year of migrating more of our social and economic life online. We emptied our offices to work from home. Our children left classrooms and started virtual lessons. We watched more TV and had more virtual social gatherings than ever before. These conditions have also laid bare the discrepancies in internet access and affordability that persist across the country today.

This “digital divide” has left too many behind, including members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community who are less likely to have access to the internet than their white counterparts are. Data reveals that the digital divide and broadband access are still barriers for many members of the AAPI community. At a time when access to broadband is more important to daily life than ever, the inability to use the internet has serious economic and social repercussions.

Without reliable internet access, employment opportunities are limited. The Pew Research Center has found that Americans view trouble in finding work or advancing one’s career as the most significant impediment facing those without broadband. Some 52% of Americans believe that those without broadband service at home are at a “major disadvantage” when it comes to finding out about job opportunities or gaining new career skills.

Unemployment rates skyrocketed during the pandemic. Unfortunately, AAPI individuals – among the most affected by pandemic-induced economic uncertainty – are still dealing with the consequences even as economy shows new signs of life commensurate with rising vaccination rates. According to a survey conducted in March of this year, long-term unemployment rose more sharply among unemployed Asian American workers relative to other racial groups. This study found that in the fourth quarter of 2020, 46% of unemployed Asian workers had been out of work for more than six months, compared with just 21% in the fourth quarter of 2019. Lack of broadband access, coupled with extremely high levels of unemployment, means the AAPI community will remain at a significant economic disadvantage if policymakers do not prioritize expanding access to the digital tools that make current and future workforce entry possible.

Lack of internet access and poor digital literacy can also have serious health impacts. Telehealth usage grew tremendously during the pandemic, as broadband internet enabled interactive video for patients and doctors to see each other without having to travel to a medical facility. These tools also let doctors monitor patients in real time. AAPI elders, for example, rely on telehealth systems to preserve their independence and depend on an internet that can rapidly adapt and evolve to meet our needs.  

Public health experts have called the impact of broadband internet access on the country’s health a “super-determinant of health” because without it, people are unable to find resources and support to promote better health outcomes. Further, as we continue to expand vaccinations across the country, online vaccine registration systems have highlighted the barriers many people can face in accessing essential services. Without broadband access, AAPI individuals will continue to face greater health risks now and in the future.

Universal broadband access is one of the most crucial equity issues facing our country today. It provides tools for people to connect, work and live better lives. It is no longer a luxury; government, industry and stakeholders should work to ensure that all people, most notably AAPI communities, have access. While we do not know what the country and the world will look like after the pandemic, we do know it will be more digital than ever before. The AAPI community deserves to be included in that future.

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