Interactive Map: Internet and Computer Access Across NJ Reflects a Digital Divide

Smartphones, laptops, desktop computers, internet connections — poorer New Jerseyans are less likely to have them than better-off residents

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Residents of New Jersey’s cities and poorer rural areas are much less likely to own a computer or smartphone or to have internet access at home than those in the more affluent suburbs, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

The digital divide is not surprising, given the cost of modern technology, including laptops, smartphones, tablets and broadband or cellular access to the internet. The same data, from the five-year American Community Survey, which spans 2013 through 2017, shows that New Jerseyans in the lowest income bracket have internet access at home at a rate roughly half that of those in the highest bracket.

That high-speed online access can be expensive and may hinge on one’s ability to pay is troubling for low-income households, given the important role technology plays in many aspects of life.

“In today’s modern economy, a smartphone has become necessary for most jobs, like a car is for jobs located away from public transportation,” said Stephanie Hoopes, director of the United Way’s ALICE Project. “Workers, especially low-wage employees, get their schedules on a smartphone, report to work using a smartphone, and even share client information via smartphone apps.”

This year’s ALICE report, which looks at the ability of households to afford life’s necessities, includes the cost of a smartphone and basic home internet service for the first time in its calculation of a “survival budget” for families. (ALICE is the acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.)

This was the first year in which census officials provided information on computer and internet usage by municipality. The data was released publicly on Thursday along with information on dozens of other topics. Because the population size of many communities is small, the data is averaged over a five-year period to provide the most accurate estimates.

At least one computer in 89% of NJ households

On average, 89 percent of New Jersey households had at least one computer — including desktops and laptops, tablets and smartphones — at home during the period. Many had more than one: 82 percent had a desktop or laptop, 74 percent had a smartphone and 57 percent had a tablet. About 355,000 households had none of those.

Computer ownership varied. In three South Jersey cities — Salem, Bridgeton and Atlantic City — fewer than 73 percent of households had either a computer or smartphone. But more than 98 percent of households in wealthy suburbs in north and central Jersey — North Caldwell, Green, Bethlehem, Little Silver and Mountain Lakes — had at least one such device.

The same pattern held for internet access, including dial-up service, broadband access via cable or DSL, satellite or a cellular data plan. At least 95 percent of households had internet access in 17 communities, all of them in the north or central parts of the state. People in fewer than 60 percent of households could go online in six municipalities: the cities of Perth Amboy, Salem, Bridgeton, Camden, Trenton and Lakewood, the latter whose low percentage could be due in part to the large Orthodox Jewish population. Statewide, about 83 percent of households had internet access.

Even New Jersey’s lowest internet access rates are better than those in rural and poorer parts of the United States, particularly in the South. Nationally, about 79 percent of households had an internet subscription and 87 percent had at least one computer or smartphone.

High cost can be prohibitive

The high cost of technology and internet service is one reason why households don’t have online access at home. According to the data, 47 percent of New Jersey households with less than $20,000 in income did not have an internet subscription, while only 5 percent of those with an income of $75,000 or more did not pay for online access at home.

Cost is not the only factor, though. A study earlier this year by the Pew Research Center found that racial minorities, older adults, rural residents and those with lower levels of education also are less likely to have broadband service at home.
The lack of access to technology, particularly when caused by an inability to afford internet service, raises equity concerns. Not only do workers need access, but most employers now require job searchers to fill out applications or submit résumés online and schools expect students to do research, collaborate on projects and submit homework via the internet.

Although libraries offer computer and internet access, many limit the amount of time a person can spend at a desktop when they don’t have enough computers for all to use.

Newark, where a third of households have no internet access at home, became the first city in New Jersey and only the fourth in the world to provide high-speed Wi-Fi “Link” kiosks throughout the city so that anyone can go online and charge a phone for free. The New York-based technology company Intersection has installed several dozen sidewalk kiosks throughout downtown Newark and in each ward at no charge to the city.

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