The Persistence of Rural Poverty
Since 1958, when the U.S. began keeping statistics on poverty, rural communities—defined as open countryside areas with fewer than 500 persons per square mile and places with fewer than 2,500 persons--have ranked higher than their urban counterparts in the indicia of poverty. In 1964, the War on Poverty recognized rural service gaps, and more recently, the Affordable Care Act addressed concerns about severe lapses in rural health care services. Despite these programs, poverty continues to disproportionately concentrate in outlying communities.
Further, the overall poverty rate of 11.6 percent disproportionately affects individuals in remote areas, especially nonwhite and tribal communities. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that in rural settings the average poverty rate for whites (13.3 percent) was still lower than the averages for Black (30.7 percent), American Indian/Alaskan Native (29.6 percent), and Hispanic (21.7 percent) populations. The poverty rates for these same groups in urban areas were substantially lower.
ADR, Online Dispute Resolution, and Access to Justice
Legal resources are scarcer in country environments, and rural areas experience “legal deserts,” where attorneys are in short supply. Especially in the context of attorney shortages, ADR offers attractive solutions, including flexible approaches, faster outcomes, cost-effectiveness, and greater participant control.
Online dispute resolution (ODR) has proven highly effective in providing access to ADR services through a high-speed internet interface. For instance, one study on ODR effectiveness in Ottawa County, Michigan, found that custody, child support and parenting time disputes resolved faster when using an online platform. Another study, in Kane County, Illinois, found that 74 percent of online-mediated landlord-tenant disputes avoided eviction. Seventy-one percent of attorneys in this study reported they would highly recommend this process to a colleague.
An ODR pilot program in the Florida Court system also showed promise. In one jurisdiction, 89 percent of small claims cases were processed and resolved at a cost of only five dollars for participants. Besides reduced costs, the program helped participants save time and travel costs.
Considering persistent levels of poverty in rural places, ADR and ODR represent potentially affordable avenues to justice. However, providing ADR training and ODR services requires adequate broadband resources, making the digital divide the greatest barrier.
The Digital Divide
The “digital divide” refers to the unequal access to technology among certain demographics and geographic regions. Besides referring to hardware and fiberoptics, this term also refers to the relative level of digital literacy among a particular population. But lack of both infrastructure and service providers perpetuates the absence of connectivity in rural areas.
High-speed infrastructure has yet to reach many U.S. rural communities. A 2019 study by the Federal Communications Commission found that 18 million people are without adequate internet service. The authors of the report resulting from the study conclude that this figure “wildly underestimates” the actual number, which may be between 42 and 162 million. Importantly, the report also recognized that 26 percent of people in rural areas and 32 percent in tribal areas lack access to broadband.
Infrastructure is necessary, but not sufficient in and of itself to solve the digital divide. Service providers—public or private—are also required to link the internet and end-users. In rural areas, private providers can be harder to come by, as potential profits are slimmer than in metropolitan areas. Without private providers, public entities must be leveraged. The costs of these services must also be affordable to customers, which is difficult for those living in poverty. Digital literacy, another aspect of the digital divide, must be promoted as well.
Both federal and state legislation are poised to address some issues raised by the digital divide. For instance, the Infrastructure Investment Bill and American Jobs Act released $65 billion for improving broadband infrastructure across the U.S. But commentators warn that “without accurate depictions and data on how residents in rural, urban, and tribal lands are adversely impacted by the lack of available and sufficient high-speed broadband, certain populations will be left without sufficient online connectivity and remain on the wrong side of digital opportunities, particularly those populations already impacted by a range of historic and systemic inequalities throughout America’s rural South and Black Belt regions.”
State legislatures are also taking steps to develop and increase broadband services. Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have passed or are considering legislation that would expand the necessary infrastructure. Enacted and pending bills focus primarily on funding, governance, and taxes for expanding broadband services. A smaller number of bills address digital literacy and education. While this trend is encouraging, the digital divide is a multifaceted issue that requires highly coordinated efforts. In states with more rural areas, this challenge is compounded by existing levels of high poverty.
Rural Areas: Barriers and Solutions
Snapshots of rural South Dakota, Mississippi, and Nebraska illustrate both the challenges posed by the digital divide and efforts towards change. For instance, in 2019, in half of South Dakota’s counties identified as rural, 25 percent of residents were without internet that meets high-speed standards. Additionally, South Dakota encompasses nine indigenous tribes that are the poorest in the country, with a poverty rate of 49 percent. The existing level of poverty creates a further issue: existence of broadband infrastructure and a provider does not mean residents can afford service.
Responding to these conditions, the South Dakota legislature approved $5 million to fund the Connect SD program, a public-private collaboration with the intent of expanding broadband service throughout the state. This program reportedly has extended high-speed internet to 26,000 homes, businesses, farms, and critical access facilities. Additionally, in 2023, the state launched a digital literacy program—featuring training in basic computer, internet, and email skills—and helps offset the costs of purchasing broadband service. Persons receiving any form of public assistance qualify for the program.
Mississippi experiences similar issues. In 2020, rural Mississippi communities experienced a 25 percent poverty rate. As in South Dakota, Mississippi’s indigenous communities bear an even greater poverty burden (33.49 percent). Regarding high-speed connectivity, as of December 2019, Mississippi’s percentage of residents without access to high-speed broadband (19.7 percent) leads the American South.
To address this issue, the Office of Broadband Expansion and Accessibility of Mississippi (BEAM) was created. BEAM proposed a five-year plan “to empower Mississippians by arming them with the technological skills, services, and tools to succeed in a global, digital economy.” This plan includes three statewide goals: economic development for technology-focused start-ups, improvement in K-12 education, and the proliferation of broadband internet services.
Regarding the last goal, BEAM will distribute $1.2 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to expand broadband services to approximately 300,000 underserved residents. To map and account for new services, BEAM is using crowdsourcing. Still, this plan acknowledges the “impact of the economic environment in the State” as a significant factor in the plan’s success. Examples of factors affecting the economic environment likely range from the limited grants available (compared to the level of need) and the willingness of providers to enter rural areas.
With an overall poverty rate of 10.8 percent, largely rural Nebraska faces the same connectivity issues. In response, Governor Jim Pillen proposed creating a new office with the sole duty of expanding broadband services throughout the state. This new office hopes to replicate the success of Nebraskan counties that have independently initiated effective partnerships with internet providers to increase delivery of broadband services. As part of this effort, the state now offers broadband access programs, including subsidies for broadband services and equipment and deployment of targeted grants for underserved areas.
These examples suggest that closing the digital divide in rural areas requires changes at the state and local levels, with collaborations between public and private entities.
What else is being done to bridge the digital divide? Some nonprofit organizations, such as Maine’s Island Institute, promote a community-driven model for addressing broadband service gaps in rural areas. This bottom-up model embraces community engagement as an engine and fosters collaboration among stakeholders who possess technical, political, and funding expertise. Work groups divide up tasks, such as cultivating relationships with service providers, choosing financial models for funding, developing local programs for digital literacy, and addressing ways to make broadband services affordable. Similarly, the Center for Rural Affairs, which publishes the South Dakota Broadband Resource Guide, works with rural communities to improve broadband access. Both agencies recognize the layers of issues associated with bridging the digital divide in rural areas.
Solving the high-speed hold-up requires structure, participation of multiple parties, and creativity. Beyond throwing federal money at developing infrastructure, concerted efforts are required at local levels, including developing service providers and increasing digital literacy. Without effective responses to each of these areas and corresponding improvement in access to internet services, equitable avenues to justice will continue to be delayed.