As daily life digitizes, local governments, and community stakeholders are focused on ensuring that residents have the skills to engage in life online. As part of this effort, communities nationwide are developing plans that promote “digital literacy” among residents to ensure that all residents can access information, communicate with loved ones, participate in educational opportunities, and remain competitive in the workforce.

When skills gaps collide with gaps in access, scenarios where already-disadvantaged individuals fall behind may be perpetuated or exacerbated.  A parent may struggle to navigate a corporate recruitment website, submitting a resume attesting to highly valued digital skills that they used briefly, years ago, on a different device. They apply for a new job over the internet, borrowing wireless connection from a neighbor.

A student may drive miles to the nearest library to research an assignment online, because their home connection is too slow to use. After they connect to the library’s broadband, they are unsure of how to find an accessible database of scholarly articles online.

Scenarios like these occur with increased frequency as broadband infrastructure permeates even the most rural parts of the United States. This transition has revealed a skills gap between those who have had continuous, reliable access to broadband and those who have not.

Digital literacy programming is typically targeted towards a few key groups:

  • Those  who are likely to be underserved in terms of broadband infrastructure
  •  Those who belong to groups that are less likely to have reliable access to internet service or devices
  • Those who are learning digital skills later in life

The concept of digital literacy programming parallels “financial literacy” programming that has been offered for decades – the goal is to close a knowledge gap for those who may otherwise be unable to access critical opportunities and achievements. Financial literacy programming often exposes marginalized groups to invaluable knowledge about personal finance, but it’s also often failed to address the gaps that keep individuals and families in cycles of poverty.


There is no doubt that concepts covered in financial literacy courses can be beneficial, especially to those earning less. Those with low incomes and low levels of financial literacy may be targeted by predatory lending schemes or never consider homeownership because they are unaware of how these systems function. What may be more common, however, is that low credit or inability to cover upfront costs associated with these opportunities exclude low-income community members from accessing these opportunities, regardless of their awareness level.  

Additionally, those who have grown up with even modest levels of generational wealth may be more likely to not only have existing knowledge of financial systems, but to be able to participate in them.  It has been well-documented that those without this type of generational wealth and support are disproportionally people of color or those with low levels of educational attainment. Knowledge can help, but prolonged access to resources has proven more effective in addressing financial literacy gaps.

The same is true of the digital landscape. Those who have had prolonged access to digital tools and resources typically know how to navigate them – supporting prolonged access is the priority challenge.

A client recently told me about an initiative they piloted to expand digital access in a low-income community. Residents were gifted devices (internet-enabled tablet computers) and could optionally participate in digital literacy programming. Many residents benefited from access to their device and used it to complete essential daily tasks. Participation in digital literacy programming was low. Most shocking to my client – some residents sold their devices and used the income to cover more immediate, high-priority costs.

This case study perfectly highlights the intersection of the digital literacy and financial literacy landscapes – knowledge is powerful, but access in paramount. Literacy programming can only go so far when poverty threatens the wellbeing of members of our community, and no one can be blamed for sacrificing tablet internet access in favor of food or running water.

Of course, digital literacy programing will be important as fast and reliable broadband becomes available nationwide.

BEAD funding and other federal and local resources specifically call out the importance of digital skills and digital equity in closing the digital divide nationwide. We will need to learn online safety, digital collaboration, specialized software, and more. What we must be thoughtful about is the purpose and context of any prescribed digital literacy intervention.

Digital literacy cannot be a stand-in for deficiencies that are caused by something more complex and uncomfortable – poverty. Digital literacy programming may help or supplement, but achieving digital equity will be a long game focused on access to resources that will always be linked to capital.

As we plan to achieve digital equity across the United States, I hope that we consider the utility and limitations of digital literacy programming, and design systems that allow for prolonged access to digital resources for all members of our communities.

Three key takeaways for those focused on developing digital literacy programming or improving digital literacy in their communities:

  • Accompany digital literacy programing with efforts to improve access to affordable broadband connection and internet-enabled devices
  • Work with employers to identify entry-level positions that support growth and development of digital skills
  • Ensure that digital literacy programing is facilitated in a format that allows vulnerable populations to participate and gain meaningful skills or credentials

To learn how TPMA can support your community’s efforts to advance broadband connectivity and digital equity, contact me at