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More than 1 in 3 rural Black southerners lack home internet access, a new study finds

A Viasat internet satellite dish in the yard of a house in Madison, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.
A Viasat internet satellite dish in the yard of a house in Madison, Virginia, U.S., on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Black residents in the rural South are nearly twice as likely as their white counterparts to lack home internet access, according to a new study from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The study, published Wednesday, examined 152 counties in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia where at least 35% of residents are Black. Researchers found that 38% of Black residents in those counties do not have access to internet in their homes, compared to 23% of white residents in the same regions.

The study also found that nearly one in four Black residents in the rural South don't even have the option to subscribe to high speed broadband, compared to just 3.8% of Americans nationwide.

The research offers a stark snapshot of how the inability to access affordable broadband can be felt most acutely for Black Americans in the rural South, a region of the country where they account for nearly half of the total population.

For adults, having strong access to the internet impacts the kinds of jobs that are available to them, and is essential for tele-health appointments, especially in areas where many hospitals have shut down. During the pandemic, when many students were learning from home, children without internet access face even higher hurdles to learning.

The study sought to measure the challenges for Black southerners in particular

The study was conducted by Dominique Harrison, director of technology policy at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on public policy issues and how they impact Black Americans. Harrison told NPR that her research differs from other data sets because Black rural residents are often overlooked in research about broadband access. Past studies, she says, encompass all rural residents, rather than specifically breaking down the data by race.

"Black residents in the rural South are rarely looked at in terms of research to understand the challenges they face in terms of access to broadband," Harrison said.

She also noted that the data helps provide more context for things like poverty rates, employment, education and health care. Harrison says in her study that 60.8% of residents in the Black rural South have incomes less than $35,000. Approximately 49% of Black children in the rural South live in poverty.

The infrastructure bill would put $65 billion toward broadband

This new data comes as a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package remains stalled in the House as Democrats in Congress remain locked in negotiations over broader legislation geared toward climate and the social safety net. The infrastructure bill doles out approximately $65 billion for broadband investments.

Harrison says her research helps paint a picture for how policy impacts certain communities.

"To isolate this specific community and really get to the details of what's going on I think paints a very clear picture to policy makers about the ways in which this infrastructure package, for example, can really have a targeted and intentional impact on these folks," she said.

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