The rapid shift to online services caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the barriers to digital inclusion faced by millions of US workers and jobseekers. Even as adult education organizations, community colleges, and workforce development providers have converted their programs almost overnight into distance learning or other virtual services, a significant percentage of their constituents have been unable to access those services because of such barriers.
New guidance from the federal government can help skills advocates to improve digital access and equity for adult learners and workers. In particular, several federal agencies have clarified how existing policies can be used to remedy technology gaps faced by many US jobseekers and workers.
What are barriers to digital inclusion?
Key elements of digital inclusion, sometimes described as the three legs of the stool, are: 1) home broadband internet access; 2) access to up-to-date digital devices; and 3) digital literacy skills. Individuals face barriers when they lack one, two or all three of these elements due to their income levels, geographic location, and other structural factors such as racism. (This last issue is explored in more depth in NSC’s recent Applying a Racial Equity Lens to Digital Literacy fact sheet.)
In a Covid-affected world, skills advocates have documented ways in which each of these barriers is preventing people from gaining access to crucial services. For example, both teachers and students -- especially those in rural areas -- are struggling with lack of access to affordable broadband internet. Individuals are sometimes resorting to sitting in parking lots to use a library or school Wifi signal to teach or participate in classes.
When it comes to device access, numerous providers have shared stories about how jobseekers and adult learners are attempting to participate in classes despite having out-of-date technology, being forced to share a single tablet computer or smartphone with other family members, or having devices that do not include unlimited data plans.
Finally, the pandemic has also heightened the challenges for individuals who did not have strong digital literacy skills pre-Covid. National Skills Coalition analyzed the digital skill gaps of US workers in a recent report, The New Landscape of Digital Literacy.
What federal policies can support greater digital inclusion?
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program can be used to support certain digital inclusion efforts, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. In particular, 2013 federal guidance explains that “A State may use Federal TANF funds or State "maintenance of effort" (MOE) expenditures to purchase computers, provide training and cover the cost of Internet access for eligible, needy families.”
Notably, because states are allowed to set different eligibility criteria for various benefits or services under TANF, the guidance also notes that “The criteria for helping families purchase computers and/or access the Internet could be broader than the criteria used for cash assistance. For example, a State could make computers and Internet access available to all families with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line.”
HHS issued updated TANF guidance pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. While this guidance is not specific to digital inclusion issues, it does once again affirm the broad flexibility and discretion that states have in determining how best to use their TANF funds.
Similarly, US Department of Agriculture has clarified that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment & Training (SNAP E&T) funds can also be used to support digital inclusion. Guidance issued in April 2020 explains that if the pandemic has caused SNAP E&T providers to move to online services, “States may use SNAP E&T funds —50 percent Federal reimbursement funds or direct Federal grant funds — to purchase laptops or other computer equipment that may be loaned to E&T participants.”
Importantly, the guidance also notes, “States must follow Federal cost principles regarding disposition of equipment.”
In addition, the US Department of Labor’s Employment Training Administration (ETA) has issued guidance for federal workforce grant recipients as part of a Spring 2020 Coronavirus FAQ. The guidance clarifies that “Grant funds can be used to purchase supplies or equipment to assist in providing program services and training in a virtual setting during this time. […] Laptops and tablets usually fall within the definition of supplies, which do not need grant officer approval.”
The guidance also links to relevant sections of federal regulations that define the terms “supplies” and “equipment.”
Finally, skills advocates can take advantage of opportunities under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to tackle the third leg of the digital inclusion stool – digital literacy. In particular, WIOA Title II (also known as the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act) lists digital literacy as an allowable activity.
More information about digital literacy in this context is available from the US Department of Education via a 2015 fact sheet from the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE).
Using CARES Act funding to support digital inclusion
The federal CARES Act passed by Congress in March 2020 included $150 billion in funding for state, local, and tribal governments. Some local governments have announced plans to use these funds to support greater digital inclusion. For example, San Antonio’s City Council is considering a stimulus package comprised of CARES Act and local funds that would invest $27 million in digital inclusion efforts, primarily focused on home broadband internet access for low-income households.
National Skills Coalition is continuing to monitor developments in how federal policy can be used to support digital inclusion and equity. Stay tuned for further policy recommendations on how policymakers can support digital equity as part of an inclusive economic recovery.