Digital divide lingers between income levels, new survey finds

Despite a dramatic increase in the number of broadband users over the last eight years, wide gaps remain in how the internet is being used among poor and rich households. According to an analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Projects, the internet and related technologies remain much more pervasive for high-income earners than other groups of Americans. After controlling for a number of characteristics, like community types, race, age and education, the report found income was the biggest determinant for email and internet use.

By analyzing information from three data sets compiled from January to September of this year, Pew researchers found that US households earning more than $75,000 per year are more likely to have broadband at home, own multiple internet-ready devises, participate in various forms of e-commerce and rely on online news sources.

“In many cases, the most noticeable difference in online engagement between various income groups relates to their intensity of use,” the report said. “Some 86% of internet users in higher-income households go online daily, compared with 54% in the lowest income bracket.”

“[T]he percentage differences are really striking with double digit differences in many categories among the income groups. And this is even with the increase in broadband access,” report author Jim Jansen said in email correspondence. “So, even with the increase broadband penetration, there are still differences among internet usage.”

Areas with some of the widest discrepancy among high-income and low-income groups include using the internet for news and health information, online banking and going online to buy a product. Wide differences exist for those two groups in laptop ownership (41 percent gap) and desktop ownership (37 percent gap) as well. Cell phones, meanwhile, remain relatively ubiquitous across income levels with penetration rates above 75% for all groups.

When looking at what part certain demographic or geographic characteristics play in use of the internet, researchers found that differences in gender, race and education level had no practical impact compared to income level. Slight differences were seen by those living in urban versus rural areas, as well as those older American. The difference between age groups and usage is exacerbated for those high-income earners who are 45-55 and 65-73 compared to lower-income households. Still, these differences were slight compared to the role income plays in adoption, the report stressed.

When looking at household earners above $150,000 analysis reveals even more of a disparity in how pervasive email and internet use are in America. The report said technology “saturates” the lives of affluent Americans, finding 96 percent of households in this group use the internet or email. Nine in ten (89%) of the high-income internet users have searched online for maps or directions, 86% have researched a product online, and 82% get a portion of their news online.

Earlier this month the Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a report looking at internet usage across 54,000 households in 2009. The NTIA report focused more closely on broadband use, finding a seven-fold increase in the amount of adoption from 2001 to 2009. The report also found that income was a strong determinant, though it stressed that many factors contribute to the nation’s seven-out-of-ten internet adoption rate.