Reducing the Digital Divide for Families: State and Local Policy Opportunities

Christine McCall, Ph.D.; Robert Duncan, Ph.D.; Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, Ph.D.; and Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D.
/ NCFR Policy Brief
Digital Divide Policy Brief

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Talking Points

  • Families are affected by the many gaps of the digital divide, including how they can access, afford, utilize, and benefit from Internet services.
  • In our modern world, being able to access and utilize the Internet has an impact on nearly every aspect of family life, including families’ education, employment, and health.
  • Families who are historically marginalized and underserved are disproportionally affected by the digital divide. Safe and effective utilization of Internet services can help to address inequities across many aspects of families’ lives.
  • Policies aimed at removing the digital divide can improve learning outcomes, enhance workforce readiness, reduce health inequities, and increase revenue for families.
  • Federal investment in broadband is at an all-time high. States and local communities are poised to implement policies that expand broadband utilization, increase digital inclusion, and bolster families’ digital skills and literacy.


The Internet affects nearly every aspect of family life, including education, employment, and health care. Many families face challenges accessing and utilizing the Internet. Gaps between those who do and do not use Internet services contribute to disparities between families. Federal allocation of funds for Internet and broadband deployment is at an all-time high. States and communities have implemented effective policies that reduce the digital divide and equalize family outcomes. The brief presents multipronged policy and program solutions for states to reduce barriers and improve families’ access, affordability, and utilization of broadband through digital inclusion, skills, and literacy.

Many families experience difficulties getting, paying for, and using high-speed broadband services. Such gaps in accessibility, affordability, and usability are referred to as the digital divide.1 The consequences of the digital divide are evidenced in nearly every aspect of families’ health and well-being, including impacts on education, employment, and health outcomes. The digital divide is both a symptom and a cause of social and economic disparities. Families who have been, and continue to be, marginalized and underserved are most affected by the digital divide.

Closing the digital divide requires multipronged solutions. Recent federal attention has focused on the digital divide (e.g., 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act2), but more work is needed. States and local communities are positioned to enact policies and implement local initiatives not only to expand access but also to equip families with the skills to engage in a digital world safely and effectively.3 This brief presents examples of local and state initiatives in the United States that have addressed the digital divide.

The brief also builds on findings presented during a recent Indiana Family Impact Seminar that focused on the causes and consequences of the digital divide for families. Family Impact Seminars bring together state policymakers (e.g., legislators, staffers, state leadership), content experts, and university partners to discuss issues selected by a bipartisan committee of legislators. Guided by a family impact lens, the goal of the seminars is to investigate how policies and programs can directly and indirectly influence family well-being.4 The family impact lens emphasizes the importance of empowering families in the policymaking process by leveraging diverse strengths and engaging families in solutions.

Research Findings

The digital divide—defined as the gaps between those who can and cannot access, afford, utilize, or benefit from Internet services—is a complex issue, in part because it does not have a one-size-fits-all cause or solution. The digital divide is multilayered and varies across families, communities, and states. Some families may have Internet in the home via a broadband subscription; others may rely on cell phone networks or may need to travel to public spaces to get online. Families may or may not have the necessary devices or Internet speeds to meet their needs. Once families get connected, there is variability in whether and how they can utilize Internet resources safely and effectively. Where applicable in this brief, the authors distinguish fixed broadband (e.g., fiber, cable subscription) from mobile broadband (e.g., 4G via mobile networks).

It is challenging to measure the full extent of the digital divide in the United States. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps broadband availability, as reported by Internet providers, at the census-block level and indicates that 14.5 million Americans do not have access to fixed broadband.5 More recent research suggests that this methodology may overreport availability; when considering availability at each household (instead of at the census block), 42 million Americans do not have access to fixed broadband in the home.5 Given the average family size of 3.20 members in 2022,6 more than 13 million families likely lack access to broadband at home. Further, when considering actual utilization, nearly 50% of Americans (162.8 million people, or 50.8 million families) are not using the Internet at adequate broadband speeds (25 Mbps).

To understand the full extent of the digital divide, it is helpful to consider three gaps: accessibility, affordability, and utilization. Accessibility encompasses whether communities have the infrastructure to support deploying high-speed Internet to families. The accessibility gap is often illustrated by the rural-urban divide, where rural families have greater challenges accessing Internet because of low household density or geographical features that make it cost-prohibitive for Internet service providers to offer services in their area.

The affordability and utilization gaps are each nearly three times as large as the accessibility gap.8 Affordability encompasses whether families have the ability to pay for broadband services to meet their speed and usage needs and to buy and maintain Internet-connected devices. The affordability gap explains why more than 60% of households without Internet are offline.9 Although it is difficult to estimate because of wide variability in available speeds and subscriptions, families in the United States pay nearly $70 a month for base subscription rates (e.g., excluding taxes and service fees), which is higher than the average across the rest of North America, Europe, and Asia.10 Internet-connected devices can be expensive to purchase and maintain, which leads to challenges for low-income families to reliably engage with the Internet.11 Utilization encompasses the actual use and ease of use of Internet services, including having the digital literacy to engage with online content and the knowledge of digital privacy and safety.3 There are several demographic characteristics associated with how families utilize the Internet, including income, education, age, and disability status.1, 12

The multiple layers of the digital divide are both caused by and shape structural and systemic barriers in society, with families who have been historically marginalized and underserved being the most affected by the digital divide. Black, Latine, and Native American families are less likely to be connected to the Internet, even after accounting for education, income, and age.8 Digital redlining, refusing to provide services to some Black and Brown communities, and profit-based discrimination, most often along racial, ethnic, and economic divides, create structural challenges for households in connecting to the Internet.13 Across the life course, gaps in accessing and utilizing broadband can further exacerbate inequities across families’ daily lives, including education, employment, and health care.

Implications of the Digital Divide for Education

In 2020, nearly 16 million K–12 students, nearly one-third of the student population, did not have sufficient broadband capabilities in the home, with Black, Latine, and Native American students disproportionately represented.14 Of these K–12 students, 6 million lacked sufficient access, 1 million lacked the necessary device (e.g., computer, tablet), and 9 million lacked both.14 Despite the swift utilization of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, nearly 12 million K–12 students faced challenges engaging in virtual education at home in 2021.15

Middle and high school students without home Internet take longer to complete homework assignments, have lower grade-point averages, and are less likely to engage in educational activities outside the classroom (e.g., email teachers, check grades, collaborate with peers).16 Further, the digital divide affects students’ postsecondary plans: students without Internet at home score lower on college entrance exams, are less likely to complete a postsecondary program, and are less likely to gain scholarships.16 For students in higher education, the digital divide affects their digital engagement (e.g., unreliable access to course content) and can result in lower grades and digital literacy skills.11, 17

Access to and affordability of home Internet affect families’ educational engagement as well. In households with multiple children, the simultaneous use of broadband for virtual learning (e.g., researching, video-based classrooms) or completing schoolwork can put significant strain on Internet speeds. Speed needs may be further strained when parents work from home or when other family members are also online. As the number of devices and uses increase within a family, the minimum download speed quickly becomes insufficient.18 Although mobile broadband is useful in connecting families without access to fixed broadband in the home, cell phone networks are not sufficient replacements for having fixed broadband in the home and result in worse educational outcomes.19 Further, students without the appropriate devices take longer and find it more challenging to successfully complete homework assignments.16 

Implications of the Digital Divide for Employment

Families’ effective use of broadband can facilitate searching and applying for jobs, equalize access to professional development opportunities to enhance the workforce, and increase employment opportunities through remote positions.13 Access to and expansion of high-speed fixed broadband can lead to job creation resulting in increased annual revenue for communities through greater purchasing power, higher rates of entrepreneurial business, and lower unemployment rates, all of which can positively affect families’ economic prospects and growth.20

Despite the economic growth resulting from broadband access and utilization, the digital divide contributes to employment inequities. The digital divide can exacerbate time inequities in family life, including the amount of time needed to sort through online employment opportunities.21 The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase in telecommuting options and remote work postings, which highlighted how families’ paid employment options in the workplace are intertwined with unpaid work in the home.22 For example, while telecommuting and remote work settings may positively decrease gender gaps in families’ child care responsibilities, such at-home work increases women’s disadvantages in housework and disruptions to their work.23

The digital divide impacts how families search for jobs, including how they find and apply for employment opportunities. Adults with lower levels of education, for example, are more likely to use smartphones to apply for jobs, which creates challenges in creating application materials and navigating websites that are not mobile-friendly.24 Several employers utilize algorithms to make the applicant-screening processes more efficient, but the algorithms are prone to bias and require that job candidates have knowledge of them and digital literacy to navigate them effectively.25

Inequities in digital skills are noticeable in an increasingly digital world in which high-paying jobs require years of skilled training, which itself may be systemically excluding certain populations. This educational inequity is exacerbated across childhood and emerging adulthood, resulting in reduced digital skills and literacy in adulthood, which can negatively affect an individual’s ability to obtain employment.13 The continued growth in digital technologies necessitates that employees receive professional development and educational opportunities to maintain their effectiveness in the workplace.26

Implications of the Digital Divide for Health Care

Access to digital health care expands the reach of health information, which can improve patients’ health literacy and health management.27 Digital health care (e.g., telehealth, digital health resources) has been instrumental in circumventing barriers to care, including geographic distance from providers, limited mobility, child care needs, and challenges taking time from work.13, 28 Telehealth was instrumental in connecting with health providers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with 40% of American adults nationwide utilizing telehealth services in 2021.29

Gaps in digital access, however, can exacerbate preexisting health disparities. Families with low incomes, elderly parents, and children or adults with disabilities and families who do not speak English face challenges engaging with digital health services.30 Older individuals are less likely to use digital technologies to manage their health, and the trend is pronounced for Black and Latine individuals.31 Individuals who report poorer health and those with greater declines in health and/or functioning are less likely to use digital health resources.32 Issues with broadband connections (e.g., dropped calls) also negatively affect how families engage with telehealth providers and their confidence in utilizing such services,33 which suggests that digital infrastructure and families’ digital literacy skills may impact the ability to access timely and necessary medical services.

Promising State and Local Policy Strategies

Federal funding for broadband deployment and utilization is at a historic high. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated nearly $65 billion to expand infrastructure, improve affordability, and increase equity through the Digital Equity Act (DEA) and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.2 These programs have provided opportunities for states to address the multiple causes of the digital divide. There is not a one-size-fits-all policy solution to the digital divide, and there are many policy solutions that can help advance toward digital parity. Increasing digital parity (e.g., equalizing access and digital literacy) will result in more digital inclusion, reduce inequities between groups, and actualize benefits to multiple domains of family life.1 Addressing the digital divide requires multipronged policies with many levels working in tandem to create a digital inclusion ecosystem.34 Digital inclusion ecosystems comprise not only a wide array of programs and policies focused on every aspect of the digital divide but also a collaborative environment of community leaders, digital organizations, and policymakers.34 The following sections present policy strategies organized around two themes: reducing barriers to utilization by addressing access and affordability and increasing broadband utilization through digital inclusion, skills, and literacy.

Strategies to Reduce Barriers to Utilization Through Access and Affordability

Various states have focused efforts on increasing access to and affordability of broadband services. By building infrastructure, expanding Internet coverage, and reducing barriers to broadband utilization, the following policies can help connect families to the digital services they need:

  • Municipality-run broadband services are an effective solution that can offer faster and more affordable options for families in communities, especially in areas where Internet service providers are not expanding.10 Despite the effectiveness of community-driven initiatives, 17 states restrict municipal networks, citing reasons such as competition with Internet service providers, upfront costs, or general bureaucratic restrictions.35 This policy solution is especially timely, as the BEAD program stipulates that states determine whether municipal networks are eligible for BEAD funds.35
  • Offsetting costs of broadband deployment can incentivize Internet service providers to expand into underserved areas (e.g., rural communities). Many states offset costs of building infrastructure through the Universal Service Fund, which pools fees charged to telecommunications service providers and then passes them on to consumers.36 States have gotten creative by using toll-road revenue (e.g., Next Level Connections in Indiana37) and creating specialized funds for rural development (e.g., Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology in North Carolina38).
  • Broadband and device subsidies offset broadband costs and help improve the affordability of broadband. Federally, the FCC partially helps to offset families’ monthly broadband costs, including costs related to broadband subscriptions or Internet-connected devices through its Affordable Connectivity Program.39 Some states have created similar programs to offset the costs of broadband. Kansas’s Broadband Partnership Adoption Grants, for example, used funds from the CARES Act to help offset broadband costs for low-income families.40
  • Expansion of community spaces that offer public broadband connections can help connect families while they wait for affordable in-home broadband. These spaces, such as public libraries, places of worship, barber shops, beauty salons, senior housing, gyms, afterschool programs, and more, can provide the appropriate broadband connections for families. Many such spaces were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and post-COVID-19, communities can be intentional about the construction of and accessibility of broadband in these public spaces.

Strategies to Increase Broadband Utilization by Addressing Digital Inclusion, Skills, and Literacy

Actualizing the full potential of broadband requires that families not only have access to affordable broadband services but also can safely and effectively utilize the services. Families need digital skills and digital literacy to fully engage in virtual spaces. Improving digital inclusion can equalize the benefits of broadband for all families. There are several possibilities in federal, state, and local policies aimed at enhancing families’ digital skills and literacy:

  • Intentional and tailored digital literacy content in K–12 education can increase families’ and students’ digital literacy and may result in a generation of individuals and families who are more civically engaged as digital citizens.41 For example, Washington State passed House Bill 1365 in 2021, which enhanced families’ and students’ digital literacy through various means: increasing schools’ technological capacities, offering technical training, building and delivering digital literacy curricula, and sharing best practices between districts.42 This policy increased digital equity by focusing on families with school-age children who benefited from free or reduced lunch or for whom English is a second language. Additionally, there is potential for K–12 schools, higher education institutions, and technology companies to collaborate,43 providing free online curricula for developing digital literacy and skills for children (e.g., Common Sense’s K–12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum44).
  • Digital skills training among higher education institutions can further develop a robust and competitive workforce in which all workers have the necessary technological skills to fulfill their duties, thus enhancing the economic well-being of families. Teaching basic digital skills to students enrolled in community, technical, and four-year institutions can increase job market competition, expand work opportunities for family members, and result in a more diverse workforce.8 Higher education leadership can put greater emphasis on digital content creation (e.g., use of multimedia tools), programming tailored to students’ background (e.g., educational major, self-efficacy), and instructor training to better integrate technology into course curricula.45
  • Offer training on digital engagement in the workforce through tailored professional development opportunities to learn about cutting-edge technologies and provide on-the-job training focused on digital technologies. Such training can include digital workshops for social service and community workers who can meet families’ needs through local digital resources. Further, families can get engaged in addressing the digital divide through the development of community-based participatory methods to create digital equity solutions designed to meet the needs of communities’ most at-risk families.46
  • Reduce barriers to telehealth by incentivizing health insurance reimbursement parity and addressing challenges in health insurance coverage and provider licensure across state lines.47 North Carolina is a strong example of passing legislation to equalize payouts for telemedicine and in-person appointments, thus providing families flexibility in being able to attend either in-person or virtual medical visits.48 Further, 37 states have already joined the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which makes it easier for families to access the medical services they need.
  • Developing inclusive digital resources (e.g., website design, resource creation) can increase the utilization and effectiveness of broadband. Inclusive digital resources are those that comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design and can help families and caregivers connect with and navigate digital resources.49 Further, having telehealth resources in multiple languages, culturally competent services, and effective translation services for meeting with providers can help make telehealth more accessible for diverse families.50
  • Develop digital inclusion plans to guide digital infrastructure and literacy development. The Maryland Office of Statewide Broadband is offering financial assistance to create and implement digital inclusion plans, including increasing families’ digital skills and bolstering technologies within public spaces. This initiative is focused on the educational and economic advancement of at-risk populations, including elderly families, families for whom English is a second language, families who are from historically marginalized groups, and low-income and rural families.51 This policy option is in line with the federal DEA of 2022, which requires states to create state digital equity plans to create an equitable digital ecosystem; the National Digital Inclusion Alliance recently published a tool kit to facilitate states in creating digital equity plans.2
  • Communities can build digital inclusion coalitions, which can scaffold the development of communities’ digital ecosystems through collaborations across governments, local community organizations, and digital equity stakeholders. The goal of such coalitions is to advocate for digital inclusion as a policy agenda, align community members in working toward cohesive solutions, and create a network of collaboratives.34 The Charlotte Digital Inclusion Alliance, for example, brought together community leaders, educational institutions, not-for-profits, and local organizations to create the Center for Digital Equity. The center facilitated equitable growth of digital services across North Carolina by expanding Internet coverage and providing devices to families, enhancing the digital capabilities of community spaces, and building skills through the involvement of “digital navigators.”52


The effects of the digital divide are pervasive for families, but coordinated policy solutions can minimize gaps in broadband access, affordability, and utilization. Enacting broadband programs and policies can redress preexisting social inequities and lead to more equitable outcomes for all families, including educational, health, and economic outcomes. Policy efforts across federal, state, and local governments are poised to meet the needs of families in each community.3 By enacting creative, collaborative, and “future-proof” solutions, the many gaps of the digital divide accessibility, affordability, and utilization—can be eliminated and result in the full actualization of broadband benefits for all families.

Policy Implications

  1. States can increase the number of households that have access to fixed broadband services through collaborations with the federal government and Internet service providers. Local communities can inform these solutions by providing insight into the challenges that families face. Solutions can focus on covering families instead of miles in order to make sure that every household has access to broadband services.
  2. States can help alleviate the financial burden of Internet services and Internet-connected devices. In addition to federal dollars, states play an important role in allocating funding to make Internet subscriptions more affordable and to create programs that pair families with the necessary devices to meet their needs.
  3. Local community organizations, workplaces, and learning institutions can offer programs focused on enhancing individuals’ and families’ digital skills and literacy. Such programs can include a variety of skills, including how to use devices, knowledge of online privacy and safety, or specific online skills such as understanding digital and/or online terminology. Improving families’ capacity for digital engagement can enhance educational, health, and economic outcomes.
  4. States and local communities can build coalitions across community members, other stakeholders, and policymakers focused on expanding the reach, effectiveness, and safety of families’ digital engagement. Because the digital divide encompasses many gaps and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, coalitions can work together to address the needs and challenges of families in their communities.

Author Bios

Christine McCall, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist at Fors Marsh, Arlington, VA. As a graduate student at Purdue University, she was a Levien Family Policy Intern through the Purdue Center for Families, where she contributed to the 2020 Indiana Family Impact Seminar.
Robert Duncan, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Purdue University. He also serves as Associate Director for Policy at the Center for Families and has been involved with Indiana Family Impact Seminars since 2019.
Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Purdue University, where she is Director of the Military Family Research Institute and Director Emerita of the Center for Families. She led Indiana Family Impact Seminars from 1999 to 2022.
Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., is Vice President for Engagement at Purdue University, Director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development, and Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics. His research interests include the digital divide and broadband applications for community economic development.


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