In This Digital Economy, We Have the Most to Lose

In This Digital Economy, We Have the Most to Lose

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The slowly recovering American economy - still shaky from rising fuel prices and an uncertain real estate market - has meant extended hard times for many Americans. The national unemployment rate in March was 8.8 percent, yet the rate for Hispanics was 11.3 percent - about 43 percent higher than the 7.9 percent unemployment rate among whites, according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics.

One key to long-term economic recovery and ameliorating the disproportionate jobless rates is minority entrepreneurship. To support it, we need policies that promote digital skills and encourage access to high speed Internet for diverse communities.

Broadband is an indispensable tool for small businesses, including minority-run businesses. Small businesses account for over 60 percent of all new jobs, and minority-owned firms are growing four times faster than all U.S. firms.

Small- and medium-sized businesses depend more than larger ones on mobile broadband. Broadband enables these businesses "more affordable access to job training for employees, improved access to suppliers, and faster outreach to potential and actual consumers through websites, emails, and e-commerce," according to Lawrence Strickland of the US Commerce Department.

Ultimately, policymakers and stakeholders must confront how to grow a skilled workforce and build up the technology infrastructure to support economic growth and innovation. Latinos, the fastest-growing community in the country, must not only have access to the high-speed Internet, but must be educated to leverage it for business, education and life functions.

Hispanics' relationship with the Internet and digital skills is complex. According to a report by Shapiro and Hassett: "80% of Latinos view the Internet as important for economic opportunity and 'keeping up with the times,' compared to 65% of Whites." Despite this, Latinos lag in adopting this vital resource - only 45 percent have home broadband access, compared to 52 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of whites.

According to the FCC, only 20 percent of Spanish-dominant Latinos adopted home broadband. Survey participants cited lack of value of the Internet and price as reasons for not adopting.

Yet the harm to communities on the wrong side of the digital divide remains clear. The skill set needed for the modern workforce requires the ability to use broadband and digital applications to network, secure employment and keep job skills current.

The digital economy means digital skills are not only a matter of economic necessity but survival in the globally connected and competitive marketplace. With public policies that favor broadband access and the expansion of digital skills, small businesses will prosper and strengthen the communities they serve.

The challenges are real and so is the potential to ensure our nation's continued prosperity. Ultimately, policymakers and businesses leaders must recognize the importance of policies that support digital literacy to fuel innovation and drive the recovery that we expect for America.