Jordana Barton’s built-by-hand childhood home in the former South Texas colonia of Benavides wasn’t a particularly pretty structure.
Though Barton remembers being embarrassed by her house, with its piecemeal additions for every addition to the family and lack of insulation that made Texas summers even more unbearable, it was part of her family’s path to the middle class.
But Barton, now a senior advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, says the bridges to the middle class are eroding because of a worrying phenomenon known as the digital divide. Instead of lacking streets, power, and water, as the residents of the former colonias often did, now the residents of Benavides and other former shantytowns are being left out of the middle class because they lack high-speed internet access – which Barton calls “a platform for access to the economy.”
“Digital inclusion is economic inclusion. If we leave things as they are, [people with poor digital access] are not going to be able to participate in the economy,” Barton said. “We are not going to get the full potential that you have.”
Unlike the dearth of public utilities that was apparent in the old colonias, however, poor internet access tends to elude the naked eye. It comes in the form of students forced to travel miles to the home of a relative with broadband internet, or an out-of-work father who visits the public library to apply for jobs.
Studying the digital divide and articulating its link to economic justice has become a nearly full-time endeavor for Barton, and the concept really started to rise to the top several years ago when she penned “Las Colonias in the 21st Century: Progress Along the Texas-Mexico Border.”
Barton wasn’t a telecommunications or internet expert, but she absorbed as much information as she could for her 2015 study as family after family along the South Texas border told her about the pains they must take to give their children the Wi-Fi connection they need to complete their homework assignments. It brought Barton out of her comfort zone. Utility lawyers and engineers, rather than economic development professionals and public policymakers, became her closest colleagues, she said.
“I had to be comfortable being uncomfortable and not knowing the answer,” she said. “I had to learn from new people that were never in my world before. I realized I had to learn something new because I didn’t want to offer Band-Aid approaches.”
She could have distributed Wi-Fi hotspots to a handful of families and called it a day, but there was no way to solve the challenges in South Texas without permanent infrastructure investments – fiber-optic cables installed to provide broadband connections – in areas that had been left out of the expansion of high-speed internet.
Barton and her colleagues are working with the federal government to update the Federal Reserve’s Community Reinvestment Act to include bank investments and partnerships with local governments, nonprofits, and educational organizations to heighten access to the digital economy.
Her 2015 study helped spur BBVA Compass, in partnership with the City of Pharr, to provide free broadband internet access beginning in 2017 to 50 households in the Rio Grande Valley city. Barton not only advised such initiatives in her report but also dangled a carrot in front of the banks by tying it to Community Reinvestment Act performance measures.
After the colonias study, Rio Grande Valley stakeholders including local government, school districts, and universities formed Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley – a group whose ultimate aim is to build a regionwide fiber-optic network anchored by the major institutions in the collective. Their broadband connections would then provide the infrastructure to deliver last-mile, fiber-to-the-home internet access or Wi-Fi to low- and middle-income households.
Her reports on the digital divide have since been augmented by publications on the need for telehealth in less urbanized and lower-income communities and the looming impact of automation on economic stability.
In San Antonio, according to national data, one in four households lacks access to the internet, and that data ties poor digital access to low socioeconomic areas. The digital divide looms large in the age of automation and digital transformation in the workplace. With middle- and low-skill jobs being wiped out by robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technology-enabled efficiencies, economists the world over are raising concerns about the impact on workers.
Nearly two-thirds of all occupations could change significantly because of automation, as McKinsey & Co. found in a study that nearly a third of most workers’ activities can be automated with existing technology.
Barton is a member of the steering committee for the Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio, which seeks to close the gap in access to broadband internet and raise digital literacy. Clarissa Ramon, who manages government and community affairs for Google Fiber, is Barton’s colleague on that committee. Ramon said Barton has led the discussion locally on digital inclusion as a force for workforce development, economic growth, and job creation.
Some in San Antonio are skeptical of the argument that there exist digital haves and have-nots. But by connecting digital inclusion to economic participation, Barton has been able to turn digital divide skeptics into advocates, Ramon said.
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“There is not a way that you can walk away from her presentation of the information, the facts, with any doubt as to the seriousness of the issue,” she said.
Barton’s career came full circle in 2015 when she published her colonias study. The Benavides native had gone from a self-built home with a less-than-robust education to a UT-Austin alumna and later a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
When she started her work she was frustrated by the questions she faced from some of her peers about residents in the former colonias. “Why do they live there if they’re so poor?” At first Barton found such questions insulting as someone who grew up in the cradle of South Texas’ colonias. Then it dawned on her. These were questions she was uniquely qualified to answer.
“They felt that I was perfect for it, too. I was expanding [the research] and telling the full story,” she said. “Certainly there are many articles that talk about the dilapidated nature, the lack, the deficit, the scarcity. And the real story is much richer than that. And it’s full of contradictions.”