Broke at Christmas? Maybe the Digital Divide Isn’t So Bad

Wired, they say, is better. But spending money on tech can leave you with a holiday hangover.

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A Best Buy employee on Black Friday, Nov. 28, 2013, in Fairfax, Va.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

For many of us—hapless, shopping-till-we-drop souls duped into endless Black Friday specials, last-minute mall runs and online discounts—the holiday never ends until well after the New Year. That’s when the sticker shock of credit card bills and drained checking accounts sets in like a street mugging. And in a few weeks, many stressed American families—who couldn’t afford the Great Annual Holiday Bamboozle in the first place—will be pressed to wonder:

What, exactly, did they buy the kids for Christmas?

Electronic gadgetry is more than likely the purse-and-wallet-snatching culprit victimizing most households. Nielsen ratings rank tech as second among the top five holiday gifts (right behind gift cards, no surprise). Tablets, mobile devices and video game consoles top that list. Broken down further, the Consumer Electronics Association expects a 3 percent increase in electronics spending in 2013 despite waning confidence in the larger economy. Since 2005, spending on media and information-processing products has risen by nearly 20 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. 

Recession hangs over our kitchen tables, and unemployment remains high, but we can’t let our collective device fetish go.

Those arguing for a wired society as the fix-all remedy to socioeconomic ills might see this as a positive development. But, they’re not accounting for the digitally inspired ditch we’re digging for ourselves with this increasingly tech-dependent life. The more wired we are, the more we’ll have to spend in an effort to keep up. Less wired presumably means you’ll fall behind, if even the most mundane, but essential, errands require a specific device. 

Households in the upper 7 percent saw their fortunes rise by almost 30 percent since 2009, while those in the lower 93 percent dropped 4 percent. And that dip is a big reason for that empty-pocket feeling in the holiday post-mortem.

African Americans are perpetually at the bottom of the totem pole—and we have the biggest post-holiday hangover. Yet, somehow, we manage to yield more than $1 trillion in buying power (which means we’re not saving much, at the holidays or throughout the year). Families find themselves continuously squeezed by a nonstop flood of stuff they need—and the stuff they really don’t. 

Conventional wisdom often assumes that simply closing broadband usage gaps will mean the end of income inequality as we know it. More devices, it holds, mean more access. The ensuing opportunity will suddenly catapult underserved communities into the stratosphere of success. 

But maybe we’ll decide that a digital divide isn’t our biggest problem, once we have that critical economic conversation above. In the mad rush to get connected, we could be unwittingly trading one divide for another.

Nearly 20 percent of what the Pew Internet and Life Project calls “non-Internet users” don’t go online because they can’t afford it, with nearly half of those who don’t have home access citing fiscal reasons. Pew also found that more than a third of Internet users mostly go online through a mobile device, with “cell mostly” rates twice as high among blacks and Latinos as they are for whites.

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