Giving Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders a Fair Shot to Succeed in a Post-COVID Economy
Even before the pandemic, internet access was important for businesses, schools, hospitals, and other public and private enterprises to conduct routine operations and provide vital services. Almost overnight, the ability to reach customers, patients, and loved ones virtually became an indispensable lifeline during an unprecedented economic and public health crisis. But the pandemic only accelerated the trend toward greater digitization happening in nearly every sector of our economy. And although much remains uncertain about what daily life will look like in a post-COVID world, we can expect demand for reliable and affordable high-speed broadband to continue to grow well into the future.
The internet has offered a virtual gathering space for people feeling isolated or attacked over the past year. In the wake of tragic violence against our communities, NCAPA coordinated a National Day of Healing and Action, with the potential reach of #StopAsianHate at over over 1 billion and over 1.5 million direct engagements on that day, and held a virtual worldwide vigil, using online connectivity as a valuable tool to link those in need, creating virtual support networks, and uplifting our communities’ needs. Broadband access facilitates a new form of aid for those who have felt unsafe or have been targeted by such bigotry. By ensuring that AA and NHPI communities are well connected, we are poised to best support one another during difficult times and, importantly, to organize and demand justice.
As vital as broadband has proven to be over the last year, many Americans inside and outside of our community lack adequate access. In fact, CNET recently reported that “44% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 didn’t have broadband.” The disparity in internet access often falls on minority communities like ours, and can have lasting, negative repercussions for educational attainment, professional development, and business opportunities. Despite research that suggests Asian Americans have higher incomes and greater digital access and literacy, we know such data is not the full story when it isn’t disaggregated and when it frequently only polls English-speaking participants. Some of the primary driving factors of the digital divide are income and English proficiency, which suggests that low- income AA and NHPI households and AA and NHPI individuals with limited English proficiency are more likely to lack broadband access.
According to a recent survey on education and the digital divide, nearly a quarter of Asian respondents reported limited computer or internet access during a time when access to technology is critical for education and work. The transition to remote learning threatened to disrupt the education of many students of color without adequate access to broadband or technology. Low-income AA and NHPI students are often the first in their families to go to college, and before the pandemic, relied on on- campus resources and technology to pursue educational, and eventually, economic opportunities. Advocates and organizations like NCAPA member OCA — Asian Pacific American Advocates stepped up to meet this need in the beginning of the pandemic by donating laptops to over 100 low-income students at Asian American and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Serving Institutions.
The growing digital divide also raises concerns about the ability of AA and NHPI businesses of all sizes to bounce back after an incredibly difficult year. According to a new study from the New York Federal Reserve and AARP, Asian American businesses appeared to suffer the largest overall losses compared to other racial groups. Yet, in the first few months of the pandemic, 75% of Asian American businesses and 91% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander businesses were likely to be denied Paycheck Protection Program loans. Moreover, at the height of the pandemic between February to April last year, roughly 233,000 Asian American-owned small businesses closed. New, digital opportunities have the potential to help low-income AA and NHPI households and struggling small businesses regain their footing and participate in the economy.
Previous government efforts to expand access have often only targeted availability, not affordability, and have therefore fallen short of their stated goals of getting more Americans online. In May of 2021, enrollment in the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program enacted by Congress late last year began. The program is designed to help low-income customers financially struggling from the pandemic afford internet service. Within the first week of the program’s launch, over one million households signed up, reflecting the widespread need for a permanent policy solution to closing the broadband gap. The EBB is an important — although temporary — step in addressing the affordability issue.
NCAPA has joined the Broadband Equity for All coalition as part of our effort to encourage Congress to establish a long-term, sustainably funded broadband access solution that simultaneously resolves persistent affordability and accessibility challenges. In doing so, we are working to expand connectivity to the entire AA and NHPI community — from rural towns to major cities — so that none of our community members are left behind. We must be fully prepared to adapt to the changing, post- pandemic world. By ensuring widespread internet access, we can give our communities the tools they need to participate and succeed in a 21st century economy.