Today, people use technology for nearly everything — from working to earning a degree to sleeping. But as the use of technology in our nation continues to increase at lightning speed, it’s become clear that low-income families are being left behind.
And that’s why U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt joined together on Jan. 7 during a fireside chat at Google headquarters to discuss plans to close and eliminate the digital divide.
Secretary Castro recently spearheaded HUD’s ConnectHome initiative to extend affordable broadband access to individuals and families living in HUD-assisted housing. The initiative partners with various Internet service providers, nonprofits and private organizations to offer broadband access, technology training, digital literacy programs and technological devices to families in HUD-assisted housing throughout 28 communities in the United States. Google is one such partner in the initiative, and has made significant contributions through Google Fiber, including connecting HUD-assisted residents in Kansas City for free.
But is connecting public housing to the Internet really that important? According to Secretary Castro, the simple answer is: absolutely.
“I believe that brain power is the new currency of success,” he said. “For America to be as competitive as possible, we need to make sure everyone has 21st-century tools to compete in the job market. Over half of low-income folks don’t have Internet access.”
While the ConnectHome initiative will provide support and resources to residents of HUD-assisted housing, it also is likely to provide insights into the power that technology can have on an individual’s success.
“We want to ensure folks get connected and get that access,” Castro said. “We also want to be able to measure what difference that makes in their lives. Ultimately, the long-term goals are that we see more of those kids that do better on math and reading tests, are more likely to graduate high school, more likely to go to college and reach their dreams. That connection will be one small part of that.”
As Schmidt pointed out, Google’s hope is to take the ConnectHome initiative to a national level — and Castro shared his confidence in the program’s trajectory for growth throughout the United States.
“I believe that it will scale," Castro said, "and my goal is by the time we walk out of there on Jan. 20, 2017 [Obama's last day in office], I would like for us to say that we have a commitment that every single household in public housing will be connected. I do believe that can happen.”
One of the biggest hurdles in connecting public housing is getting support from local municipalities to maximize existing resources. As an example, Castro pointed to a fiber network municipal utility in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, where he served as mayor from 2009 to 2014. While the network has the potential to serve public housing communities, a local statute prevents it from being allocated in that way.
“We need all hands on deck in terms of making it more affordable and accessible for folks to get access,” he said.
The secretary also responded to other questions regarding housing, including skyrocketing rental prices and homelessness. While HUD works to address all housing needs, Castro pointed to the ConnectHome initiative as a great platform for improving urban development across the nation.
“As you look around the globe, the U.S. finds itself in an unprecedented competition of brain power with young people who are intelligent and tech savvy, and we need to do our part to make sure we don’t let that go to waste,” he said. “That will be good not just for one company or industry, but for the United States."
Julia McCandless is a journalist passionate about finding the story and telling it well. She currently works as a freelance journalist and communications expert in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and son.