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Unemployed Detroit residents are trapped by a digital divide

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 entered a crowded 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 email, 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 in connecting to the Internet in rural areas are well known, 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 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 unemployment 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 the most recent data from the 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 — and underappreciated — factor. The consequences appear in the daily grind of finding connectivity, with people unable to apply for jobs online, research new opportunities, connect with health insurance, get college financial aid or do homework.

“It’s like fighting without a sword,” said Deborah Fisher, director of the Hope Village Initiative, a nonprofit effort to improve social services in the neighborhood. “Broadband access is a challenge and a major factor in economic opportunity and employment here.”

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. With a part-time job at a furniture store paying $10.88 an hour, Rice cannot afford a service to connect to the Web, which can cost more than $70 a month.

So Rice has made Hope Village’s public library, Parkman, her career center. She regularly comes on the five days the library is open to search retail openings, arrange interviews and take employment tests. The library typically extends her time online over the one-hour session limit. Even so, during a recent online exam for a store manager job at Ann Taylor, she ran out of time and was locked out of the test.

Rice, 57, is also applying for a small-business grant to open a retail gallery. But the process has taken several months because she has to wait until library hours to watch informational videos, work on the online application and sign up for networking events. She could do some tasks on her old Samsung Galaxy smartphone, but she said it was too difficult to file applications on a small screen.

“I’ve come to believe Internet is a human right,” she said. “It’s clearly a huge disadvantage if you don’t have it.”

Every day it becomes harder to find opportunities in Detroit without using the Web.

Applications for Detroit’s summer jobs program for youth and young adults are only taken online. Most listings on Michigan’s biggest private and public jobs site require email, uploads of résumés and online tests. College financial aid, unemployment benefits and public food assistance programs have shifted to online systems as fewer government offices offer in-person or phone services.

“All basic research for jobs and the forms we use to apply for jobs is online,” said Jed Howbert, executive director for jobs and economic development in Detroit’s mayoral office. “Lack of broadband access is one of several obstacles to employment that we are systematically trying to take down.”

In Hope Village, half of the 5,700 residents live in poverty. Many are not getting basic digital literacy skills or access to educational resources for entry-level jobs, much less the growing number of jobs that require more tech skills and vocational certificates.

That skills gap risks leaving some people even further behind. Sean Pearson, a Hope Village resident, has been looking for new work for months that is better than his job filling produce boxes for $8.50 an hour. But many of those jobs require knowledge of database software, online fulfillment and sales systems, and payroll applications, with which he has little experience.

And more than a dozen times, he has gone to stores and asked to fill out paper applications, only to be told to apply online.

“I can’t come tomorrow so I’ll start searching again in a couple days,” said Pearson, 31, during a recent one-hour computer session at the library.

Efforts are underway by nonprofits and the city to bring free Wi-Fi to neighborhoods. One nonprofit, Focus: HOPE, had a federal grant that brought free wireless Internet to Hope Village until the money dried up recently.

At least one small free network continues on the neighborhood’s outskirts. And the nonprofit Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. now regularly sends out a recreational vehicle equipped with Wi-Fi and computers to neighborhoods, including Hope Village.

Another effort by the Detroit Community Technology Project has helped bring free wireless hot spots to seven neighborhoods and is trying to reach more places. But being able to get online is only the first hurdle. People require training on how to use technology, and they need computers or other devices.

“You can’t just provide access and say you’re done,” said Diana J. Nucera, director of the community technology project.

Hope Village will have to wait for more free hot spots. With so many areas in need of broadband service, there is not enough funding for the neighborhood to get them.

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