MSU Texas professors see internet connectivity as obstacle for less fortunate

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MSU Texas professors see internet connectivity as obstacle for less fortunate

Midwestern State University professors John Martinez and Sarah Quintanar wanted to do what they could to help the public stay informed through the COVID-19 situation, and they have written articles on the economy which were published by the Times Record News recently.

“I became an economist because I enjoy applying data to interesting questions, especially those to inform policy,” Quintanar said. “However, it is very uncommon to be able to study and apply data to real-time issues, as John and I have been able to do over the last few weeks.”

The duo has also made appearances on TV in Wichita Falls.

“I am concerned for our community in this time of crisis, but I am grateful to be able to apply my knowledge to support it in this small way,” Quintanar said.Here is their latest column in the TRN, which was published on April 14. 

Drs. John Martinez and Sarah Quintanar, Midwestern State University

Even when an economy is hitting on all cylinders, living conditions for individuals with sparse financial resources can be exacting.

One can only imagine the additional hardships imposed by the current coronavirus crisis. While we do not have expertise in presenting personal stories of individual hardships, we do have the ability to assess and quantify the overall magnitude of the problem from official government sources.

For starters, let us begin by looking at how students from families with less financial means are coping with online learning. According to the most recent statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS), slightly more than 6,000 households (or 11.2 percent) in the Wichita Falls metro area do not have access to a computer in the home. An even larger number (almost 20 percent) are without broadband internet services.

Without access to these services, trying to deliver and receive online educational services can be nearly impossible. Despite the yeoman efforts of public school administrators and teachers, there are bound to be a significant number of students from low-income families unable to access online instruction.

Trying to file an unemployment claim in the face of the rapid rise in recent applications has been a struggle even for those with internet service. The Texas Workforce commission has seen a drastic increase in web traffic but also in calls, which were as high as 1.7 million in one day last week.[iii] Attempts to file such claims without internet service poses an almost insurmountable hurdle, even as the office increases employment to try to process the surge in claims.

Additionally, many other household tasks often require internet access. Rather than physically shopping at brick and mortar retail outlets, many households have taken to online shopping and delivery, thereby lessening their chance of exposure from other shoppers. Not only does this require reliable internet service, but it is an extra monetary cost as well.

As local officials respond to COVID-19, low-income workers face particularly urgent difficulties even when they are not directly at high risk of health complications. The necessary steps taken by local, state, and national officials to contain the outbreak and protect public health have major consequential effects on their economic well-being.

For example, public schools being closed causes a problem for families who are still employed but now must find childcare. Fortunately, the public schools have been able to develop a plan to continue to provide meals for students, but this is only one of the support systems that schools provide.

Federal, state, and local governments have been developing a range of short-term measures that promise to bolster the resources of individuals adversely impacted by the current public health emergency. These measures include the expansion of food assistance benefits, paid sick leave, and unemployment benefits, among others.

As useful as all these measures have been, they do not capture the full magnitude of the hardship faced by some of our most disadvantaged citizens. Public policy efforts, at all levels of government, to expand internet services to all households is of paramount importance. It is encouraging to know that local public school administrators appear to be moving in this direction. (See the April 12, 2020 Sunday edition of TRN, “Wi-Fi sought to help students,” by Trish Choate.)

Notes: The various estimates and statistics we present in this column are for the local area, defined as the Wichita Falls Metropolitan Area (MSA). Most of the statistics for this op-ed piece come from the 2017-2019 American Community Survey (ACS) of the U.S. Census Bureau. In some cases, the authors revised initial ACS estimates to more closely align across various geographical units.

Citations: Trish Choate, TRN April 10, 2020, “How do you apply for unemployment benefits in a pandemic?

Dr. John E. Martinez is professor of economics at MSU Texas.

Dr. Sarah Quintanar is director of MSU’s Bureau of Business and Government Research (BBGR) and associate professor of economics at MSU Texas.


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