The Program to Help Pay for Internet Isn’t Reaching the People Who Need It Most

At the height of the pandemic, nearly 93 percent of U.S. households with children were involved in some form of distance learning from home, according to Census Bureau data. Yet even when there were few alternatives, lower-income families were much less likely to rely on online resources for schoolwork. That isn’t all that surprising, when you consider many of those families (especially in rural areas) lack adequate internet access they can afford. During the pandemic, reliable and affordable internet access was not a luxury, but an essential necessity.

The FCC launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBBP) in May 2021 to help low-income Americans pay for internet access and internet-connected devices. Congress earmarked $3.2 billion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act (passed in late December 2020) to pay for the program, which provides a monthly subsidy of $50 ($75 for participants living on Tribal lands) to help pay for internet access, plus a one-time device discount of up to $100. It is open to people living below 135 percent of the poverty line, participants in safety net programs such as SNAP or Medicaid, those who experienced “substantial” income loss, and certain other eligible groups.

The program is designed to help bridge the digital divide during the pandemic, and it has helped millions of American households cover the cost of getting connected. However, red tape, technical challenges, and limited Internet Service Provider (ISP) participation have created barriers for some of the people who may need it the most.

“I thought if I could get the [internet access] subsidy then I’d upgrade to a higher level since we were both working from home and my daughter was going to school virtually at that time,” said Gwynn Stewart, a Community Development Educator at Ohio State University Extension, Noble County. Stewart learned about the EBBP subsidy from her daughter’s school and tried to sign up, but her provider, GMN Broadband, said they were too small to participate. “This, again, is another way Appalachian residents are being left behind.”

It likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever applied for a government program that the EBBP, like many federal programs, involves its fair share of red tape and hoops to jump through. Navigating the process can be especially tough for people who don’t have access to a computer with reliable internet access — the very issue that the benefit is trying to solve.

Some participating ISPs have set up an application portal on their website. Households like Stewart’s, who either don’t have an ISP that provides that option or who don’t have an ISP at all, must first enroll in the program and then obtain service from a participating ISP.

The barriers don’t end there.

“Applying over the phone has a long hold time,” said Lauren Cotter of Community Tech Network, a nonprofit with locations in Austin and San Francisco. “For online applications, older adults with limited digital skills face humongous technical challenges when they have to create email accounts, create EBBP online accounts, prepare eligible supporting documents — which may involve taking selfies and snapshots of documents — and upload them for their applications.”

Roughly 21 million Americans lack access to broadband internet.

“Some ISPs do try to make it easy but even so it’s a challenge because it’s a multistep process,” said Juliet Fink Yates, digital inclusion manager in the Office of Innovation & Technology for the City of Philadelphia. “You often have to first go to the EBBP website and fill out the form, which of course may be a hurdle if you don’t have internet. Then you have to go apply with a provider and if you don’t already have one, you have to know which is the best provider for you. It can be tough to figure out which provider is your best option, and then which plan is the best. Once you do all of that and start the application for EBBP, it often still involves a few phone calls and some back and forth over the phone to get it all set up.”

The regulations and bureaucracy are a potential obstacle not only for applicants, but also for internet service providers – and in some cases may be preventing them from participating.

Samantha Musgrave is the director of Project Waves, a small ISP in Baltimore City that has connected more than 400 households to free internet service since May 2020. Musgrave said Project Waves elected not to participate in the EBBP or its Maryland counterpart, the MEBBP, for a few reasons, among them “the significant requirements related to FCC licensing for participating providers in the program, as well as the limitations on reimbursable costs allowed by the program.”

ISP participation aside, Musgrave said many people who could benefit from the EBBP may not even know the program exists and notes an ironic aspect to the informational efforts. Because the program is primarily being promoted online, people who don’t already have internet access may not be hearing about it. As for enrollment, Cotter says some simple tweaks — such as eliminating an email address as a mandatory application requirement — could make a big difference in making it easier.

That’s why outreach efforts by “digital navigators” and organizations that serve vulnerable populations are so important. Residents of Philadelphia were fortunate to have a network of helpers available to assist them. Last year, the city launched a Digital Navigators program that placed tech savvy specialists in several Philadelphia organizations that work with low-income residents and vulnerable populations. Throughout the pandemic, these specialists have assisted city residents with tasks such as filling out online forms or arranging telehealth visits — as well as helping people find access to low-cost internet and get signed up for it.

“They’ve really become experts in helping people sign up. They have become familiar with the process and the challenges involved and have also become really good advocates for the people,” said Yates.

In addition to broader outreach efforts, Musgrave said the government could also have a much greater — and long-lasting — impact by providing long-term connectivity solutions for households without existing internet service. In infrastructure-poor communities, from rural America to historically redlined neighborhoods like Baltimore’s Cherry Hill, residents don’t just need help paying for internet service. They need that service to be available in the first place.

Roughly 21 million Americans lack access to broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the state of Pennsylvania alone, for example, more than 800,000 households do not have access to broadband connectivity. The real picture is likely much worse: Numerous experts and researchers have found fault with the FCC’s data, which relies on ISPs to supply their own information. There are also questions about what qualifies as “broadband” at all. Research by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that median speeds across most areas of the state do not even meet the FCC’s criteria to qualify as broadband.

“The program is not inherently designed as a pathway to establish new internet connectivity to those who need it most,” Musgrave said.

President Biden’s Build Back Better calls for a significant investment to support and expand broadband infrastructure, but it’s unknown at this point how much (if any) of that envisioned funding will survive intact in the final legislation. Currently, the Senate infrastructure bill, which could come up for a vote in the House as early as today, provides for $65 billion in broadband investment, including $14 billion dedicated to a benefit of $30 a month in the form of the Affordable Connectivity Fund. Meanwhile, as of October 2021, 6.3 million households were enrolled in the EBB program. The FCC says it has tried to provide as many options as possible for people who want to participate, but $2.5 billion in funds remains unspent.



Minnesota Will No Longer Take Newborns from Incarcerated Parents

When Jennifer Brown left Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee on a work-release program, it had been six-and-a-half months since she had seen her son, Elijah. The last time they’d been together was when she gave birth to him, under the watch of two prison guards, in a hospital near the prison. Brown had forty-eight hours with her newborn before she had to hand him over to a family chosen by Together for Good, a religious nonprofit that places vulnerable children in foster care.

When Brown and her son met for the second time, the baby cried and did not immediately warm to his mother. Brown said she initially thought “he does not like me,” before conceding that, in reality, “he did not know me.”

Until this summer, incarcerated people who gave birth in Minnesota had a maximum of 72 hours with their newborns before they were separated. (The length of time depended on the type of birth.) In many other states, the parent and child have as little as 24 hours. As Alysia Santo wrote in PBS Frontline, “giving birth means saying goodbye.”

But recently, stories such as Brown’s and the advocacy of organizations such as the Minnesota Prison Doula Project — an initiative that provides pregnancy and parenting support to incarcerated people in Minnesota — have driven a major policy change. As of August 2021, people who are serving a prison sentence in the state will no longer be separated from their newborns after giving birth.

The Healthy Start Act, which was signed into law by Governor Tim Walz in May, allows the Department of Corrections to place incarcerated pregnant or postpartum parents into community alternatives. These include halfway houses or residential treatment facilities where parents can access treatment for the duration of their pregnancy and bond with their newborns for up to one year after giving birth.

Giving birth means saying goodbye.

The bill is the next step in a broader push toward improving prenatal and postpartum care for people in prison nationwide. Thirty-two states have passed restrictions on pregnant shackling, seven states have ended solitary confinement for pregnant people, and a few localities have increased the budget for prenatal care. While there are nine prison nurseries in other states across the country that allow children to stay with their parents, the Healthy Start Act is first-of-its-kind legislation because it permits postpartum people to bond with their newborns outside of prison.

According to Safia Khan, Director of Government and External Relations at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, about half of all pregnant people who enter a Minnesota prison will leave while still pregnant. Among the other half that give birth in prison, the majority reach their release dates within six months after giving birth.

Kahn emphasized that while “the separation period is often temporary and short, it is hugely disruptive to bonding and hugely traumatizing for the mother and for the child.” The importance of parent-infant bonding for the early development of newborns and the mental and physical health of postpartum people has been well documented. It impacts everything from the development of connections between brain cells fundamental to learning to the ability to build loving, trusting relationships later in life.

The new law is particularly important for Native American communities: Despite making up only 1.4 percent of the state’s overall population, 34 percent of the people who were pregnant in Minnesota prisons between 2013 and 2020 were Native American. The bill’s passage is due in part to the leadership of Native American elected officials in the state. State Representative Jamie Becker-Finn and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan both championed the legislation. During the discussion of the Healthy Start Act before it passed in the state legislature, Representative Becker-Finn said the legislation represents “an incredible opportunity to disrupt cycles of trauma.”

“At first, it was a difficult transition” when Jennifer initially reunited with Elijah. But “since then, our bond has grown so much,” she said, as she has been able to witness some of his milestones, including crawling and walking.

While Jennifer was in prison, she would often find herself wondering what her son looked like. Now, she can detail the mundanities that come with a shared bond: the types of food he likes (watermelon) and dislikes (tomatoes); the sound of his laugh; and his quickness to smile.




Surge in Anti-RV Parking Laws Are a Backdoor Ban on Poor People

On Election Day 2020, 57 percent of voters in Mountain View, Calif., passed a ballot measure to address what many housed in the Silicon Valley town viewed as a growing civic issue: people living in RVs. A street count from July 2020 found 191 recreational vehicles [RVs] parked on city streets, with 68 parked in an approved city-run lot. With the measure’s approval, city staff could ban most RV residents from remaining in Mountain View via “no parking” signs. Nearly a year later, the measure’s future is unknown; soon after voters approved the ban, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California and the Law Foundation of the Silicon Valley filed a class action suit against the city, arguing it was discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Though the lawsuit is ongoing, city workers started installing “no oversize parking” signs on nearly all of the city’s streets in August, at a cost of $1 million, severely limiting places where recreational vehicle residents could park in Mountain View. It is just one city among dozens taking action to remove RVs and those who live in them through such bans.

“There were more people against us than for us,” Janet Stevens, 63, a plaintiff named in the lawsuit, said of the November election. “[But] it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with street safety.” For Stevens, who has watched the city change as more tech company employees have moved in, the fight around housing affordability and the RV ban comes down to Nimbyism and “a lack of support and true understanding of who [vehicle dwellers] are to start with.”

The lawsuit underscores Stevens’ analysis. “[Mountain View] is in the heart of Silicon Valley where, in recent years, an economic stratification has yielded significant wealth for some, but skyrocketing housing prices for all,” the complaint read. “As a result, many of Mountain View’s long-time residents have been priced out of the housing market and forced to live in [RVs] parked on the City’s streets.” Most of those living in recreational vehicles, like Stevens, grew up in Mountain View, lived in the city as adults, and rely on city services to survive. Stevens is undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and has chronic fatigue syndrome and high blood pressure. In addition to her friends and neighbors, Stevens’ medical team and support group are located in Mountain View. “If I was to leave here I don’t know. [I’d be in] deep, deep trouble being able to find doctors that were understanding and willing to support my treatment for my diseases that have multiple realms of symptomatology,” Stevens said.

There’s no constitutional protection for economic status.

Proponents of the ban say it’s not so much the recreational vehicle residency itself, but the eyesore of the oversize vehicles, the waste disposal on city streets, and the lack of regulation. Advocates for equitable housing policy counter by saying Measure C is a proxy ban on poor people: a targeted attack on the city’s residents who can’t afford the increasing rent prices in one of the most expensive regions in the country. While the median household income in Mountain View has doubled in the past twenty years, income inequality in the Silicon Valley has ballooned, growing at twice the state and national rate. Almost 20 percent of the region’s households have no savings. For many, the area rent — now $2,500 per month — is impossible to afford.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” said Nantiya Ruan, a professor of law at the University of Denver. “Inequity and that imbalance of power just means that people become more and more disadvantaged and pushed out of communities and don’t have a voice in government and everything else that stems from that.”

According to Ruan, this leaves wealthy residents with even more authority. “There is a lot of power for communities to regulate how their space is used,” she explains. “And so, what municipalities are doing is making it hostile for those who need to sleep in their car or sleep in their RV by doing all sorts of different zoning code laws.”

The history of targeting and discriminating against undesired community members is baked into the American legal framework. Redlining is the most well-known example of this. In addition to the federally sanctioned segregation that kept Black people from building wealth in well-to-do neighborhoods, so-called “sundown town” laws forbade non-white people from remaining within city limits after the sun set. Oregon banned Black people, and some municipalities required Native, Japanese, and Jewish people to leave by 6:30 each evening. California also maintained an “anti-Okie” law, which banned unemployed people and migrant workers from entering the state in 1937.

Ruan argues these policies live on in the network of bans on RV residency, though — unlike discriminatory laws of the 20th century — vehicle laws don’t explicitly target poor people. Even if they did, given that there’s no constitutional protection for economic status, Ruan says, making these laws difficult to challenge in court. These laws are “really about focusing on keeping people out of public space and therefore out of [public] consciousness,” Ruan said. “[The laws] keep them from being visible, right? [Politicians think] nobody wants to see visible poverty.”

Mountain View isn’t the only city instituting laws on vehicle residency. Los Angeles instituted its own ban against parking for “habitation purposes” in 2017, affecting the then-total of 7,000 homeless people living in their cars. Neighboring suburbs of Los Angeles, such as Culver City, Santa Monica, and Malibu all have bans on sleeping in one’s car overnight. This April, Carlsbad city officials updated their city codes to include a ban on camping within city limits as well as parking oversize vehicles overnight on city streets. Those who want to park their vehicles within city limits overnight are now required to obtain a 24-hour permit and are restricted to acquiring six permits per month. In August, city council members in Flagstaff, Ariz., voted to keep a law on the books that bans camping — including vehicle camping — at the dismay of locals who have been pushed out of their homes by increased housing prices and wildfire. Following the approval of an ordinance that requires residents to move their vehicles every three days, the city of Eugene, Ore., is considering its own parking ban in “industrial commercial areas.” And in Lacey, Wash., plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit against the city for effectively banning RVs and those who live in them by way of a city ordinance that limits the number of hours a vehicle can be parked on the street.

In lieu of providing housing, some cities are creating “safe parking” programs with dedicated spaces like church parking lots where vehicle residents can park overnight. Mountain View has one such program, and plays host to a third of all safe parking lots in Santa Clara County, but there aren’t enough spots for every person who needs one. Moreover, Stevens says she applied three times for a safe parking spot but never heard back. Even if she had been approved, she doubts she would have accepted, given the lot’s restrictions.

Katie Calhoun, a PhD student at the University of Denver who studied the efficacy of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, says it’s common for safe parking programs to have restrictions, such as prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. Designated safe parking lots did make residents feel safer in Denver, though the average duration of stay in the safe lot was three months, after which just under half of vehicle residents continued to live in their car.

The City of Mountain View could address the claims of public safety concerns by establishing a waste disposal site where residents can easily access it and pushing for more safe lots. And, of course, the city could stop exacerbating the housing crisis by, among other things, not approving the destruction of rent-controlled apartments. For those who aren’t able to access a safe lot in cities with vehicle residency bans, there aren’t many alternatives aside from risking a police encounter, potential arrest, or moving to a town that doesn’t have a ban on the books.

As for that eventuality, Stevens says, “There is no preparation for that. Except for maybe, you know, driving around looking for a town where they’ll accept me to live.”



The Census Isn’t Releasing Local Poverty Data Today. Here’s Why That Matters.

Our social safety net relies heavily on statistics.

Number of kids returning to school this year: 48.1 million, all receiving free meals.

Number of people housed with the help of federal rental assistance: 10.4 million, 23 percent of whom are disabled.

Number of workers who lost their unemployment benefits on Labor Day: more than 8 million.

To help people, we have to know how many people are in need, how many people receive benefits, and what the gap is between those two numbers. For the past 15 years, the American Community Survey (ACS), conducted annually by the Census Bureau, has been one source of such data. But the pandemic made that data collection impossible.

The American Community Survey tracks how Americans are doing on a granular level annually, not just once a decade: It measures the highest level of education people have completed, how many people experience poverty each year, and how people commute to work. Any community with at least 65,000 people has ACS data that anyone can view. That data is used to allocate resources for more than 130 programs, many of which fight poverty, including SNAP, Head Start, Section 8 vouchers, Unemployment Insurance, and the Census itself.

The Census Bureau collects the majority of its information through Internet, telephone, and mail-in surveys, then follows up with some of the people who do not respond with phone calls and in-person visits. But in 2020, the stay at home orders at the beginning of the pandemic interrupted the data collection process. Mail operations were canceled for April, May, and June of 2020, as were in-person interviews. So, while the Census did still get some respondents, it was not able to collect sufficient data among key groups who tend to be less responsive: People with lower incomes, lower educational attainment, and those who do not own their own homes. As a result, they decided they couldn’t offer their usual ACS data release.

The people we are missing data on are the exact group of people TalkPoverty focuses on: The same people who were hit hardest by the pandemic, and for whom accurate data is most important in developing a response.  The American Community Survey is how we know, for example, the number of people who have health insurance, what their household income is (and how much of it depends on public benefits), and how many people have dipped below the poverty line by state and congressional district. That’s especially important because it lets us track geographic inequities over time.

The Census will still be able to provide useful data from a related Census product, the Current Population Survey. That data, released September 14th, will include national poverty rates, health insurance coverage data, and income data that lets us calculate the gender wage gap. We’ll have a broad sense of how Americans were faring overall in 2020, and how effective federal aid programs such as expanded Unemployment Insurance and SNAP were over the year. However, there will not be any state or local breakdowns of that data. So, while we will have the official annual poverty estimates, we will not have detailed data that would show if certain groups of people, such as Black women in Michigan or Latinas in Texas, were more likely to experience poverty in 2020.

Later this fall, the Census is releasing what it’s calling “experimental” ACS data on “a limited number of data tables for limited geographies.” It’s unclear right now what exactly that means – we do not know which data points or locations it will cover. It is unclear how the many agencies that rely on this data to calculate necessary funding for benefits will be doing their math, even as we need data more than ever to reflect changed economic circumstances for millions of Americans. What data there is will provide us with important information about a year when so many communities that rely on the safety net were in turmoil — from grocery store clerks to elementary school kids.


First Person

Prison Visitation Was Nearly Impossible for My Kids. Then COVID-19 Hit.

In 2016, I was assigned to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla — six hours away by car from where my children live. I told the caseworker all about them and their mothers, and asked if there was any way I could be sent to a closer facility to increase the chances of them being able to visit. It wasn’t about me, I explained, but for my girls.

He didn’t laugh. He didn’t rationalize why it was necessary to send me so far away, even though there were plenty of prisons on this side of the state. He didn’t tell me that the mental health of my daughters wasn’t worth protecting. I might as well have been invisible, he was so dismissive of my distress, as he said, “Your file says you’re incarcerated for armed robbery, Mr. Moore. Tell me, did you rob old people, too?”

My ten-year-old daughter is not doing well in school. Remote learning due to COVID-19 restrictions has failed to hold her attention, and she’s teetering dangerously close to having to repeat the fourth grade. I’ve been there. One year, I was only passed with an “incomplete” because I’d caused enough trouble that the school wanted me out as quickly as possible. I’m pretty sure I could help my little girl if I was around, but I’m not. I haven’t held her since she was four, because for the past seven years, I’ve been the property of Washington’s Department of Corrections (DOC).

Even before the pandemic, trying to arrange a visit was a nightmare. Her mother would have to go to the DOC’s webpage and fill out the tedious application. She would have to submit one for herself as well (minors aren’t permitted to visit their incarcerated parents without a guardian — or somebody approved by their guardian — present). That means she would also have to request to be removed from her incarcerated cousin’s visiting list, since an individual can only be on one prisoner’s list at a time in Washington state. That process alone would take three months to accomplish.

She would have to scan a copy of a completed and notarized consent form and send it along with the application. She would have to do that part at somebody else’s house, as she doesn’t have a scanner of her own. She and I didn’t exactly part on good terms, and this is a lot of work and embarrassment to endure, so she made a deal with my daughter: Get your grades up, and you can visit your dad.

My 16-year-old wants to be a journalist when she grows up, and she’s growing up fast. Her mother is poor and I’m not much help from prison. So my teenager, sensing she’s going to need savings for impending adulthood, works at a pizza shop rather than focusing on her education. I’ve offered to help her start getting published in order to build a portfolio that could potentially earn her a scholarship someday, but she’s too preoccupied with work and high school to even go through the process, let alone think about her long-term future.

Then there’s my young ones on the opposite side of the world, in London. Visiting has always been available to them, but the expense does not permit their traveling so far to see me. A flight for one is costly enough without having to multiply it by four.

So many holidays and birthdays have passed.

Before COVID lockdowns, prisoners could receive visits three days a week. Bulky guards would march between tables with their chests out, watching for any physical contact beyond the touch of a hand between the parents. No touching shoulders. No brushing faces. No kisses or hugs, beyond a brief embrace and peck at the beginning and end of the visit. The tables were placed so close together that free movement for children was not always an option. There was a small play area with toys and video games, but it wasn’t designed for parents wishing to spend time with their spouses as well as their kids.

As soon as COVID-19 began to reach American prisons, it got much worse. Guards weren’t mandated to wear masks until the outbreak they’d introduced into our home led to a riot. Though the vaccine is finally available to anybody who wants it, some guards are refusing to take it. Meanwhile, visits — along with all religious, educational, and self-help programming — were canceled.

More than a year after Governor Inslee declared a state of emergency, visitation finally reopened. Initially, visits were permitted once a month, for an hour at a time, for two people. I heard from my neighbors that the visit was non-contact through a plexiglass box with holes drilled about knee high. Visitors had to sit on chairs, and they bent their waists like they were about to dive as they yelled to be heard above the chatter. Children under 16 were not allowed to attend.

On August 15, 18 months after the pandemic hit the United States, three hour contact visitation for up to three guests finally resumed. The age restriction was lifted, and families all over the state breathed a sigh of relief.

I expected complaints to still fill the air as, after all, visitation would still not be what it had been. Masks were now necessary, and meals could no longer be shared. I guess most of us were just so relieved to have contact visits again that we accepted what we felt would do us and our children some good.

Upon reflection, we know that so many holidays and birthdays have passed and although it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the faces of our young, we haven’t forgotten them. Despite DOC’s actions, we are more eager than ever to see them again. It’s been too long.