Social work

Advocacy for social work is key to tackling the digital divide as a social justice issue, say authors

LAWRENCE – A professor at the University of Kansas is co-author of a new article which argues that broadband access is an issue of human rights and social justice as marginalized communities are left behind in the divide digital.

The United Nations General Assembly declared Internet access as a fundamental human right in 2016. As such, the field of social work needs to become more involved in promoting broadband access for all, and policymakers should make efforts to ensure that access is capable for all communities. Edward Scanlon, associate professor of social protection at KU, made these arguments and shared resources and advocacy advice on the front lines of the problem in an article published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work. The study is co-authored by Cynthia Sanders of the University of Utah.

“The digital divide is not limited to broadband broadband access,” Scanlon said. “This part is very important, obviously, but there is also the problem of the simple fact that people have a device to access the Internet. A third element concerns digital literacy and understanding what it means to be online. It is no longer considered a luxury. It is now primarily viewed as a utility.

The digital divide is not just a matter of policy or infrastructure. It’s a matter of social justice as lack of access disproportionately affects people of color, low-income individuals and families, and those living in rural areas, the authors wrote, and to the intersection of all these communities are the indigenous communities. Scanlon noted that tribal entities in the United States are often disadvantaged in this way and shared the example of the Potawatomi Nation, which resides in a county in Kansas where more than 40% of the population does not have internet access. broadband.

“The pandemic has made this problem even more urgent for telehealth and education reasons. Many students have struggled with homework and accessing education during the pandemic, ”Scanlon said.

The issue is also a social justice issue as people are less able to get vital information, news or connect with others without broadband. It can also limit the ability of people to get adequate education, contact health care providers, work, apply for jobs, pay bills or receive benefits such as social assistance. and other services considered to be fundamental human rights in the 21st century, write the authors.

Efforts are underway to bridge the digital divide. Perhaps the best example is California’s Internet for All Now Act, which was passed in 2017. The law formed a public-private partnership in which the state authorized the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars to help private companies to expand Internet access in almost all parts of the state. .

“We pointed it out because it’s a few years older than a lot of effort, and it allocated $ 330 million,” Scanlon said. “The amount and goal of getting 98% of each geographic area of ​​the state covered is important.”

Scanlon also highlighted the formation by Kansas of the Office of Broadband Development, recently formed to expand access statewide. Office work helped take Kansas from the 40e to 28e Most connected state, he added. But, while the numbers look good in many areas, there are still areas where up to 40% of residents do not have adequate access.

Such public-private partnerships as in the case of California are politically expedient because they appeal to the wishes of conservatives to avoid the government taking over expansion efforts and to progressive desires to avoid enrichment of the people. private companies at public expense, the authors wrote.

The authors also argued that the field of social work also has a role to play in bridging the digital divide. Just as the field has championed and served low-income, marginalized and under-represented communities in terms of child care, access to health care, mental health and other areas, they should focus on digital divide as a serious social justice issue. This is all the more timely as social work services are moving online like so many other services.

“If you’re going to provide social services through telehealth, you have to make sure people have broadband access,” Scanlon said. “Social workers need to advocate as they do for mental health, race issues, the fight against poverty and these traditional causes. “

Scanlon and Sanders shared resources, links to online toolkits, recommendations for speaking to policy makers, and advice for advocacy groups in the document.

“Social workers can help amplify the voices of those who work on these issues. Almost every community has a broadband access advocacy group. Sometimes they are centered around universities, libraries or even business groups. But we do argue that social workers need to step outside of their usual comfort zones and work on these issues with them, ”Scanlon said. “One thing social workers are really good at is listening to people tell their stories and helping them share them with those in power. We want to help them share the struggles of those with limited access with decision makers.

The problem would be best solved with a cohesive national strategy, similar to those adopted during the New Deal era to electrify even the most remote areas of the country, the authors wrote, but so far state and local efforts can draw. lessons from successes.

“It’s really a national issue and should be seen as part of the infrastructure, just like utilities, bridges and roads,” Scanlon said. “While we don’t have this yet, we believe we can see best practices from states and local efforts replicated widely. “

Picture: The Kansas Health Institute map above shows variations in Internet access across Kansas. Many rural counties have high percentages of residents without sufficient broadband internet access. Edward Scanlon is a co-author of an article arguing that the digital divide is a social justice issue that should be addressed in depth by the field of social protection as well as by policy makers. Credit: Kansas Institute of Health