Stacy Baird - How Can We Use the Post-COVID Economic Recovery to Address Racial Disparity, the Digital Divide, and Jobs?

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Sep 09, 2020
by Stacy Baird
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Stacy Baird - How Can We Use the Post-COVID Economic Recovery to Address Racial Disparity, the Digital Divide, and Jobs?

Launching the Salzburg Questions for Law and Technology series, technology consultant Stacy Baird proposes several potential programs that can help people in the U.S. address economic and social challenges Stacy Baird

This article is part of the series, the Salzburg Questions for Law and Technology by the Salzburg Global Law and Technology Forum

Over the past several months, technology has been central to keeping many of us working, studying, and, indeed, socializing. The general perception until now has been that “we are all online.” In fact, we are not, as media reports are beginning to cover. As we have seen with work-from-home and study-at-home, the reality is that those with broadband and a computer can participate. Those without can’t.

The COVID-19 crisis recovery response gives governments and businesses the opportunity to reboot their economy in a way that also meets the fundamental long-term objectives of bridging the digital divide and preparing students and workers, regardless of race or social status, for future jobs. This action won’t erase racism’s prejudice but is a part of meeting the urgent need to address the fundamental disparity in access to education and job training.

The lockdown has shown it is possible to make quality education available online to all. In the year ahead, as schools across the globe decide not to open classrooms, the need for online access is critical to simply ensure an education this year for many, possibly most, of America’s students. In the longer term, supplementing the return to classroom teaching with online resources that will benefit the underserved, and making available online reskilling resources, can lead to a transformed economy. But all will benefit only if the most disadvantaged have broadband access and an adequate computer.

Looking specifically at the US, where the effects of the pandemic seem to be going on effectively unabated, 2019 data from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) shows broadband adoption rates for Black and Latinx or Hispanic households are less than white households by 7.1% and 7%, respectively. Approximately 14 percent of households with school-aged children have no wired broadband connection at all. Bridging the digital divide will not only give kids the opportunity for better education and a pathway to better jobs, but it will also give adults around them access to reskilling and the ability to participate more fully in society and the economy.

Three features of the global pandemic converge to create an opportunity to accelerate education reform and workforce upskilling. First, with the widespread unemployment, as well as a significant number of non-working paid employees, necessity is meeting opportunity. Notably, African Americans are disproportionately affected. Second, one of the most revealing characteristics is the rapid adoption of “work-from-home” and “school-at-home.” By taking advantage of learnings from these experiences, government, companies, and academic institutions can create and extend the reach of online education and up-skilling opportunities, so all Americans benefit. Third, there is a need for a radical response by governments and industry to restart the economy and set objectives to grow the economy in the face of lingering challenges.

The COVID-19 situation has propelled governments and businesses to invest heavily in economic recovery. Doing so has created an opportunity to address longer-term needs strategically. We can bridge the digital divide to deliver both general education and vocational education and training, so workers and job-seekers can prepare for changes in an existing job and, more broadly, in the job market.
Nations need to focus their response to address both the short term and the long term economic and social challenges.

Focusing again on America where the concurrent crisis demanding a profound government response is two-fold, the pandemic and issues being brought to the fore by the Black Lives Matter movement, the government needs a National Economic Recovery and Transformation Agenda. The Agenda can provide an opportunity for people unemployed, underserved, and receiving low-income. Federal and state government economic recovery efforts should also include public-private funding and programs to ensure by the end of 2021, every American is online and has access to quality education and job training.

Below I outline several potential programs and policies which help move us in the US toward achieving this aim. To start with, we can expand the Universal Service and Connect America Funds and lifeline services. As a first step, reestablish the expansion of the lifeline tax to internet service providers that was suspended by the Trump administration. We can make further progress by increasing the tax on telecommunications companies and adding a tax on Internet platform companies and cloud service providers (based on criteria such as subscriber numbers). These new sources of revenue will help provide affordable access to high-speed broadband to all low-income Americans, schools, and libraries, urban and rural.

America’s future depends on workers and students ready to enter the workforce with agility and ability. To meet this need for society, industry, and the economy, the federal government should establish a new Ready for Tomorrow (RFT) fund – initially seeded with COVID-19 economic recovery funding and supported financially for the long term by industry and government.

This fund can establish several programs. The RFT Digital Access Program would provide a laptop or large-screen tablet for every low-income child over five and adults, and community center, and library “study halls.” These halls, staffed with support workers, can ensure learners have a safe and quiet place to study.

Meanwhile, the RFT Education Program would provide funding and programs for students and teachers to improve in low-income communities K-12 and university education. Building on the RFT Education Program, the RFT Skills Program would provide funding for online workforce training, upskilling, and job search skills to bring all Americans fully into the economy. These programs can also provide access to supplemental online learning to complement classroom education. There is no reason to end online education for kids that are now becoming so comfortable with it.

The RFT Online Portal would primarily serve low-income communities and people who are unemployed. However, the Portal would also connect students, educators, community centers, and libraries to free and paid resources, such as MOOCs, specialized curriculum, and even technical support. The Portal can provide access for companies to the same content to develop programs to help their workforce learn advanced skills or enable anyone to curate services appropriate to the needs of their community or constituency. 

America needs to address the all too obvious long term systemic challenges our society faces, and in doing so, turn the dual challenges into opportunity. Other governments, too, should consider how best they can do the same.


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Stacy Baird is a consulting director at the Singapore-based consulting firm TRPC. His expertise lies in law and advising businesses and governments on information technology, privacy, data protection, cloud computing, and intellectual property (IP) public policy matters. Stacy also serves as executive director of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Forum Intellectual Property Program, where he helps address bilateral technology transfer and IP issues in the context of clean energy research and commercialization. Previously, Stacy served as Senior Policy Advisor to U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, including work on the U.S. Patriot Act, and advisor to U.S. Congressman Howard Berman on issues of first impression related to the then-nascent internet and the mapping of the human genome. Prior to law, Stacy worked as music recording engineer with clients including Madonna, Stevie Nicks, Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, and Francis Coppola. He held appointments as Visiting Scholar at the University of Southern California College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Visiting Fellow at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law. Stacy has a J.D. from Pace University and a B.A. in radio and television communications from San Francisco State University. Stacy is a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar.

The Salzburg Questions for Law and Technology is an online discussion series introduced and led by Fellows of the Salzburg Global Law and Technology Forum. The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily represent the views of their corporations or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. Readers are welcome to address any questions about this series to Forum Director, Charles E. Ehrlich: cehrlich@salzburgglobal.org

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