April 20, 2015

The numbers behind the broadband ‘homework gap’

Since the dawn of the internet, there’s been much talk about the digital divide – the gap between those with access to the internet and those without. But what about the “homework gap”?

In recent years, policymakers and advocates have pushed to make it easier for low-income households with school-age children to have broadband, arguing that low-income students are at a disadvantage without online access in order to do school work these days. Later this year, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to begin a rule-making process to overhaul the Lifeline Program, an initiative that subsidizes telephone subscriptions for low-income households, so that it would also cover broadband.

In 2013, the Lifeline program provided $1.8 billion worth of telephone subsidies for qualified low-income people. The FCC has not yet provided estimates of how much it would cost to add broadband subsidies to the program, but the debate will undoubtedly focus on overall program costs and how many households would be covered. 

lower income households lack broadband homework gap

How big is the homework gap? A new Pew Research Center analysis finds most American homes with school-age children do have broadband access – about 82.5% (about 9 percentage points higher than average for all households). With approximately 29 million households in America having children between the ages of 6 and 17, according to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, this means that some 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed internet service at home. Low-income households – and especially black and Hispanic ones – make up a disproportionate share of that 5 million.

Pew Research analysis of the Census data finds that the lowest-income households have the lowest home broadband subscription rates. Roughly one-third (31.4%) of households whose incomes fall below $50,000 and with children ages 6 to 17 do not have a high-speed internet connection at home. This low-income group makes up about 40% of all families with school-age children in the United States, according to the bureau’s American Community Survey. (The survey asked questions on home internet use for the first time in 2013.)

By comparison, only 8.4% of households with annual incomes over $50,000 lack a broadband internet connection at home. In other words, low-income homes with children are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle or upper-income counterparts.

The other notable difference in home broadband adoption pertains to the race and ethnicity of the householder. Lower-income black and Hispanic households with children trail comparable white households with children by about 10 percentage points.

Asian Americans, by contrast, outperform the other groups in broadband adoption for households with children, regardless of income level. A likely explanation is that Asian Americans have the highest educational levels of any racial group in the United States, which is a characteristic strongly associated with having broadband at home.

Note: The author is currently a senior researcher at Pew Research Center. Prior to joining the center, he served on the Federal Communications Commission team that developed the National Broadband Plan.

Topics: Broadband, Internet Activities

  1. Photo of John B. Horrigan

    is a senior researcher focusing on the internet and technology at Pew Research Center.


  1. Ray12 years ago

    Another solution would be to provide low income families with broadband with VOIP, then remove their telephone subsidies.

  2. Alberto S2 years ago

    I’d like to know if the FCC definition of broadband applies to this research.

  3. Neil2 years ago

    There is another point that I found frustrating. The federal gov’t spent 1.5 billion on helping folks get a phone. This is nearly half of what they are spending towards helping states turnaround failing schools (3.5 billion).

    Regardless of your position on education spending; on the surface, I really question the logic behind the decision to spend so much on helping people get a phone?

    I grew up in an area where almost EVERYBODY was DIRT poor. Central air conditioning was considered a luxury item. Yet, I don’t recall a single relative or friend (who was responsible) not having a phone? If anything, they would miss a payment and the phone would be turned off until payday. And the phone companies often gave you a few months as long as you “worked with them”.

    Moreover, if your credit was bad, you had to put down a deposit. This meant that the phone companies were holding at least one-month’s rent. So you could literally go three to four months paying a partial sum towards your bill before they even considered turning your phone off. And this is not even considering the cheap “pay as you go plans”
    that were not available back in the day.

    The only people I remember who didn’t have a phone were those who were COMPLETELY irresponsible or were suffering from a serious addiction (and I mean serious). Paying for a phone is not going to address their problems. Everybody wants a phone. Socially, nobody wants others to know that they cannot afford a phone. And even in those cases when someone didn’t have a phone, they just borrowed yours. That is how I know they didn’t have one!!!!!!!

    So if you want to help them…just give them some money and let them spend it how they want…but don’t play these political games

    1. Michael Elling2 years ago

      In the past we used subsidies to keep local line costs down and easier for everyone to afford. The government began to shift to a policy to reduce these implicit subsidies which created market pricing imbalances and moved to explicit subsidies, like the one you mentioned. Over the past 30 years both local wired and wireless costs have increased not decreased as a result at a rate greater than they expected, particularly as technology costs have come down so much.

      There are 2 primary reasons for this: a) the FCC looks good data and an analytical framework to understand what real costs are; and b) the industry vertical integration model is fundamentally flawed and results in excess and wasted capital and operating expenditures.

      It’s time to rethink our approach to networks and policy in this country; a formidable task. So in the meantime, they pay out the explicit subsidies and allow the operators to collect unregulated near-monopoly rents.

  4. Willie Cade2 years ago

    Do you find clusters of adoption?

    We have some adoption data by zip code. Would it be useful to you?

  5. Packard Day2 years ago

    Access alone to broadband is a poor indicator for its value to school age children. Rather, it is what they choose to do with it once they have it that counts most. Lower SES students tend to use their internet access more for recreational and entertainment purposes (e.g. Netflix/video gaming, etc) while higher SES students tend to use it far more for educational and informational objectives in mind.

  6. Gary Rawson2 years ago

    I noticed that regardless of income, there is a smaller number of households with Internet Connections in both Black and Hispanic households. So, it is not just income that drives the numbers. What determines adoptions? Also, there is no mention of availability. Did all of the homes in the survey state they had access but chose not to use it, or did they say they had access but could not afford it. Was there a relationship in responses when considering Rural vs. Urban households?

    1. John B. Horrigan2 years ago

      You are correct that income is not the only thing that drives home broadband adoption. Educational level is a strong predictor of that – and even at higher income levels, black & Hispanics have somewhat lower levels of educational attainment than whites or Asians. The survey did not include data on whether a home had broadband service available, though 94% of American homes have at least one fixed broadband wireline service option. I did not do a “rural v urban” run on the data — definitely something worth exploring. Rural broadband adoption usually lags non-rural by about 10 percentage points. Thanks for you questions!

      1. Michael Elling2 years ago


        It is also important to “speed-weight” the results. A 5/1mbs connection is going to be a poor experience when a student is watching required documentaries or educational videos; an increasing aspect of almost any curriculum. So the lower income folks are likely buying the lowest broadband packages and therefore are at an even greater disadvantage.


  7. dave Jeffords2 years ago

    These look like numbers for urban populations. I live in rural California. We have many here living in a broadband brown out. We have a lot of poverty and under 50k families. It’d be great to see numbers for rural residents with kids vs. these urban/suburban dwellers.