The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster for the Black community. Between February and April of 2020, the number of Black business owners actively working in the United States plunged 41%. Just as the virus itself preyed disproportionately on our community, so did its economic fallout.
At the same time, Black families entered the pandemic less prepared than white families for shift to telework and remote learning. Black students were twice as likely as their white peers to lack a reliable computer or home internet connection. Half of Black workers have limited or no digital skills.
The arrival of vaccines and decline in infection rates are good reasons for optimism. But our goal can’t just be a speedy return to “normal” — not if that “normal” continues to see too many Black families shut out from the economic opportunities of the digital age. Instead, this disaster must become an inflection point that leads to more equitable opportunity and a better future.
We can start by organizing an all-out push to get every member of our community connected to broadband and equipped with the digital training to use it.
In today’s economy, it’s almost impossible for an aspiring business owner to launch a company, reach new customers, and achieve a meaningful scale without being connected to the broadband internet. The same goes for online job training resources for workers trying to advance their careers.
Encouragingly, Georgia has made some progress toward closing our digital divide in the past year. Atlanta’s innovative Get Our Kids Connected program, a public-private partnership between Atlanta Public Schools (APS), Comcast, and local donors, is a groundbreaking prototype that offers home broadband at no cost to any APS student who needs it.
Nationwide, more than 5 million households were newly connected over the course of 2020 – many through similar public-private partnerships. These new initiatives built on the success of providers’ longstanding low-cost broadband programs, which have helped connect millions of low-income Americans over the past decade.
But we can’t just outsource this adoption problem to broadband providers and heroic local mayors. Not every community has the resources — or the strong, progressive leadership — that Atlanta enjoys. The federal government must step up its commitment to closing the digital divide nationwide.
Congress created an Emergency Broadband Benefit in December to subsidize low-income and unemployed households with a $50 benefit each month for broadband. But is temporary program now needs to be made permanent; the importance of broadband won’t disappear when the pandemic ends. Just as the federal Lifeline program has helped needy families with home phone service for decades, Congress should create a similar, permanent program to help those in need purchase home broadband.
We also need a comprehensive new commitment to teach digital skills, and to leverage local community organizations with reach and credibility in vulnerable communities to teach the importance of getting online. State and city leaders should use the newly-passed American Rescue Plan to fund local community partnerships and mentoring programs aimed at these goals.
Our public schools also need to develop more compelling online and in person curricula to better spark young students’ curiosity. Absenteeism was a huge problem before COVID-19; it exploded during remote learning. In some schools, fewer than half of all students joined in online learning during COVID.
Houston, we have a problem!
Democrats’ majority in the Senate, made possible solely by the efforts of Georgia voters and activists, gives the Biden Administration a rare opportunity to forge a bold, progressive agenda with both Houses of Congress. We owe it to the marginalized communities on the wrong side of the digital divide — those that paid the heaviest price during COVID-19 — to break down these barriers and welcome them as fully enfranchised participants in our connected future.
Daniel Blackman is a political activist and impact investor. He was the Democratic nominee in 2020 for a seat on Georgia’s Public Service Commission.