Closing the Digital Divide for Black Americans in the Rural South
with Spencer Overton of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies
Approximately 38 percent of Black Americans living in rural areas of the southern U.S. lack home internet access.
Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss how expanding broadband access can help improve employment, income, and healthcare for this population.
Jan 30, 2023
Anderson: About a third of Black Americans living in the rural South still don't have access to the internet at home. As the federal government starts distributing funding for broadband infrastructure, it's now up to individual states to ensure that often-overlooked populations get online. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Advocates say expanding internet access is crucial to improving employment, education, and health outcomes for rural Black residents. Joining me to discuss broadband challenges for the Black rural South and the role that states can play in addressing them is Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And, Spencer, thank you so much for being here.
Overton: Thanks, Tetiana.
Anderson: So, you know, you say that the states have a whole lot of power when it comes to what to do here. What are you seeing? What's working in some states?
Overton: Well, most people, when they think Black, they don't necessarily think rural, right? And actually, there are a lot of African-Americans in the rural South. This is kind of the footprint of the kind of the legacy of agricultural slavery in the past, and also the ancestral home to many African-Americans in this country who've migrated to other places, right? So we took a look at counties in the South and really counties nationwide that are 35% Black and also designated as rural by the USDA. Those happen to be in 11 states in the South. We found that these areas had some of the highest unemployment, highest poverty in the nation, and also, unsurprisingly, high rates of lack of broadband at home. 38% of Black households in this region lack broadband, which is almost two times as high as white households in those same areas, and almost two times as high as rural areas outside of the South here. So, two real reasons on that. Money -- significant poverty, right? And then the other issue is just access in terms of infrastructure that is there. So, if we can fix these issues, we can improve a whole host of other issues here -- healthcare, employment, small business development.
Anderson: So, obviously, we want access, right? But when we get access, that comes with its own set of challenges for many people. You know, it can be discriminatory ad targeting. It can be disinformation. There can be hate that then funnels into things like voter suppression.
Anderson: What is your organization doing to address all of that?
Overton: Well, there are some real harms, and you laid them out. One problem we've seen is housing ads and employment ads being targeted, let's say, at white folks, but Black and Latino people not receiving them and platforms arguing that they're immune from federal civil rights laws when that happens. We've basically said no, they're not. Their algorithms, their data -- they're involved in terms of the steering. We've pushed back against that, and we've also said that Congress needs to be explicit as well.
Anderson: I know that your group collects a lot of data. You've got a lot of information to funnel through. So I'm wondering about the sort of current and future state of Black America. I mean, what can you tell us about the sort of economic disparity that we're dealing with right now?
Overton: Sure. There are real challenges right now. You know, Black children right now are three times more likely to live in poverty. Black household wealth is about one-tenth that of white household wealth. There are issues in terms of tax provisions, where taxing wealth is at a lower rate than labor. So, capital gains, owner-occupied housing. These are things that African-Americans are less likely to be able to take advantage of. So we've been really focused on building out our economic work in terms of household economic security, tax policy, small business, those types of issues. And let me also mention that the infrastructure bill that, you know, provides broadband across the country is really important to dealing with some of these problems, both in terms of an Internet subsidy that we want folks to take up when they're eligible. It's $30 a month, basically, and that's also supplemented with programs like Comcast Internet Essentials, right? And then also the build-out of the infrastructure to places in the Black rural South. And we want states to do that build-out based on need, not based on politics. So it's really important that people pay attention to that because we don't want disparities to be greater after the infrastructure bill, which could happen if it's not implemented equitably.
Anderson: It is a new era at the Joint Center. You are now moving on from America's Black think tank, as it's known. What are some of the things that you're most proud of in terms of your accomplishments and where do you want to see the organization go?
Overton: Sure. When I came 10 years ago, we faced significant financial challenges. So, important was kind of restoring the financial health. We've got about $11 million in net assets now, which is very significant. We're really focused on the future, the future of Black communities. So tech policy, economic policy, those are important. During the pandemic, we were critical in stepping up to the plate and insisting that the CDC collect data by race on COVID cases and deaths. Government staff diversity -- we've done a lot of work there. Since we started doing that work, the number of top Senate staff, Black top Senate staff has increased 300%. The House has opened up an office focused on diversity, and President Biden has made some historic appointments. He's appointed more Black female federal appellate judges than any -- all former presidents combined, right? So we've seen some real changes we're excited about. What I'm most excited about is the concept of a Black think tank. In D.C., policy is guided by think tanks here. So this concept of a group of Wakanda type of folks, bright folks, thinkers who are thinking about the future of Black folks, not in terms of just eliminating disparities, but really a prosperous future that I think helps all of America.
Anderson: So, people are going to want to know more. What's your website? Where should they go?
Overton: You can find all of the information in terms of the Joint Center at jointcenter.org.
Anderson: Spencer Overton with the Joint Center, thank you so much for being here.
Overton: Thank you.
Anderson: And thanks to you as well for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.