Digital divide hits St. Louis low-income neighborhoods the hardest, report shows | Local Business

Jean J. Sanders

ST. LOUIS — Between 250,000 and 300,000 households in St. Louis and St. Louis County lack access to high-quality internet, and one-fourth of homes in the city do not even have a computer, according to a new report measuring the gap in digital access between rich and poor areas of the region.

The report, the St. Louis Digital Divide, says that families in low-income school districts, such as Normandy, Jennings, Riverview Gardens and St. Louis Public Schools, have the furthest to go in closing what’s known as the digital divide.

The region must invest in order to reverse the trend, said Dave Leipholtz, executive director at the Center for Civic Research and Innovation, a co-author of the report.

“We will need a real infusion, as well as system change,” he said.

The report comes after pandemic shutdowns laid bare just how acute the digital divide is in St. Louis. Children, particularly those living in low-income neighborhoods, lacked computers and reliable internet, and they often struggled to keep up in virtual school, districts said. The report’s authors say the research is the first of its kind in the metro area.

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The groups that commissioned the report didn’t know how to address the issue, they said.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” said Amelia Bond, president and CEO of the St. Louis Community Foundation, one of the report’s primary funders and a partner in Leipholtz’s center. “We needed a study to understand the scope.”

Other major funders include the Missouri Foundation for Health and the charitable organization of Clayton-based NISA Investment Advisors.

The report, produced by Leipholtz and consultants Ernst & Young, studied the digital divide in communities, homes and public school districts. It did not include charter schools, which educate thousands of students every year in the St. Louis area.

Conversations about the need for the data started in early 2021, and research began that summer. The total effort cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000; Ernst & Young donated $1.3 million in services, leaders said.

Authors assessed fiber internet availability in the region. They tested internet speed and broadband quality. They found access uneven and, at times, unavailable: Some areas had just one internet service provider.

The research estimated 90,000 households had inadequate devices. It estimated 100,000 adults needed some form of digital literacy.

The issue will not be fixed overnight, said Kathy Osborn, CEO of the Regional Business Council, another primary funder of the report.

The report lists preliminary estimates to fix the problem:

• $200 million to $300 million in fiber lines or the equivalent.

• $45 million to $50 million to subsidize internet service.

• $20 million to $30 million in devices.

Good news may be on the horizon.

The report identifies several sources of funding, including $681 million in federal aid to invest in broadband in underserved communities and $51 million in federal cash for digital literacy. And the state of Missouri is discussing spending more than $250 million in federal pandemic aid money for broadband initiatives.

Libraries are well-suited to provide training and tutoring and to distribute devices, the report said.

Kristen Sorth, director and CEO of St. Louis County Libraries, said libraries secured thousands of ChromeBooks and internet hot spots for students during the pandemic. And she said they will continue to help.

It’s about more than schoolwork, she said.

“This is just part of who we are, now,” Sorth said of internet access. “We do things online not just because we need to file our taxes or check on a doctor’s appointment, but to have fun and enjoy our lives.

“And everybody deserves that.”

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