The utility of web-based benefits access tools is contingent upon user access to and familiarity with the Internet. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) reports that, although Internet use has risen sharply in the United States in the last decade, disparities persist in computer and broadband access and usage (NTIA 2011). While data show that this "digital divide" is narrowing; lower levels of family income and education, as well as employment status, household type, and disability status, continue to negatively affect households’ likelihood of having broadband access. Caucasian households are also more likely to have broadband access than African American and Hispanic households (NTIA 2011).
Respondents to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey Internet Use Supplement who did not have Internet access at home reported that cost was the main reason they were nonsubscribers (NTIA 2011). Furthermore, populations with low levels of literacy and digital literacy may experience greater difficulties in understanding web-based materials. NTIA reports that individuals who have some high school experience but no diploma and those with only elementary school experience have a 29.5 and 15.2 percent adoption rate, respectively, compared to individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree, who have an 84.2 percent adoption rate (NTIA 2011). The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) reports that 11 million adults are not literate in English, with more than 4 million who could not take the test because of language barriers (NAAL 2003).
The "digital divide" may disproportionately affect certain segments of the population with low-income. For example, seniors with low-incomes are more likely to have lower levels of digital literacy. A national Kaiser Family Foundation survey of older Americans found that less than one-third of all seniors 65 and over have gone online, and less than half of all seniors have ever used a computer (Rideout et al., 2005). Additionally, rural populations are less likely than their urban counterparts to have broadband connections at home. In 2010, 60.2 percent of rural households compared to 70.3 percent of urban households reported having a broadband connection (NTIA 2011).
Various segments of the population eligible for benefits face other barriers to accessing and using web-based benefits access tools. Some barriers are related to individual characteristics, such as language, literacy, or effects of aging, while others are situational or structural, such as lack of stable housing or distance from the nearest library or benefit office that offers Internet connections. In this section, we describe some of the barriers and potential needs among these groups with respect to web-based benefits access tools.