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Unemployed Detroit residents are trapped by a digital divide

Anderson Walworth (left), a computer technician, helped set up a wireless hot spot for a Detroit neighborhood. Laura McDermott/New York Times

DETROIT — In downtown Detroit, startups and luxury retailers are opening up and new office buildings are being built as the city works to recover from its deep economic problems.

Six miles to the north, in the neighborhood of Hope Village, residents like Eric Hill are trying to participate in that progress but are running into hurdles. His difficulties were apparent on a recent Tuesday when he crowded into the public library to use the computers to look for a new job.

With no Internet service at home or on his mobile phone, Hill had few options to search work listings or file online job applications after losing his stocking job at a pharmacy five months ago.


“Once I leave, I worry that I’m missing an e-mail, an opportunity,” Hill, 42, said while using a library computer for a free one-hour session online. He cannot afford broadband, he added; his money goes to rent, food, and transportation.

As one of the country’s most troubled cities tries to get back on its feet, a lack of Internet connectivity is keeping large segments of its population from even getting a fighting chance.

Detroit has the worst rate of Internet access of any big American city, with four in 10 of its 689,000 residents lacking broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. While difficulties connecting to the Internet are well known in rural areas, Detroit is becoming a case study in how the digital divide in an urban setting can make or break a recovery.

The deficiency of Internet access in Detroit is particularly glaring given that broadband is now considered as basic as having electricity and water.

Last year, the FCC defined high-speed Internet as a public utility and made connecting all American homes to the Web a priority. Yet many Detroit residents cannot pay for the service or a computer to go online, or for mobile data plans, which enable 24-hour Internet access anywhere over smartphones.


“I was in pain visiting Detroit, seeing how so many pockets aren’t part of the opportunity of broadband and are falling behind,” said Mignon L. Clyburn, an FCC commissioner who visited the city in October.

Detroit’s jobless rate declined to 11 percent in February from 13 percent last year and from 19 percent that same month in 2013, according to Michigan’s labor statistics office. But in neighborhoods like the 100 blocks that make up Hope Village, unemployment is more than double the city average, hovering around 40 percent in 2013, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Those areas of Detroit are being left out for many reasons, including low education rates, poor transportation, and fewer entry-level jobs. But the lack of Internet access, city officials and economists say, is also a crucial factor.

The consequences appear in the daily grind of finding connectivity, with people unable to apply for jobs online, research opportunities, connect with health insurance, get college financial aid, or do homework.

Julie Rice, a Hope Village resident for the last seven years, has found having limited Web access a major obstacle in her search for full-time employment after losing her retail management job more than two years ago.

“I’ve come to believe Internet is a human right,” she said.