JOLIET — Low-income families with schoolchildren would have Internet access at home through a public assistance program under legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Bill Foster.
Foster, D-Naperville, on Monday joined representatives of the Housing Authority of Joliet and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at one of HAJ's affordable housing communities, Liberty Meadows Estates, to discuss the reasoning behind Foster's Closing the Digital Divide for Students Act.
“Today's Internet access is as essential to students as textbook, pencils and paper,” Foster said. “When low-income students do not have reliable access to the Internet, they fall even further behind their peers."
Families who live in HUD-assisted housing receive financial assistance for utility bills, such as electricity and gas. Basic Internet access is not included. Foster said the bill would add broadband Internet as a permitted utility for families with children who qualify for free or reduced school lunches.
This initiative could help HUD's vision of leveling the playing field for people from “all walks of life,” said Antonio Riley, regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
About four out of every 10 U.S. families with an annual income of less than $25,000 have Internet access, Riley said. That compares to nine of 10 families making more than $100,000 per year having Internet access.
“That is a disparity that should not be allowed to exist,” Riley said. “Access to opportunities for the engagement of schools, access to government resources, job applications, college applications, scholarships, financial resources have now been moved to the digital platform ... But many who need these valuable resources are most disenfranchised because they are lagging behind in the digital divide.”
A mother of four who lives in public housing, Eva Mulligan said she and her children would benefit from Internet access at home.
“I have four children. Three are in high school. One is in grammar school. Nowadays, you need the Internet for homework. Not Facebook, but homework,” Mulligan said. “It would benefit with homework, with their science projects."
Families at the mixed-income, single-family homes and duplexes at Liberty Meadows Estates have access to a computer lab at the on-site Community Center. But Michael Simelton, chief executive officer for HAJ, said that service is only available until the lab closes every day at 4:30 p.m.
Under the bill, families would have to use the least expensive Internet provider available, and would pay for installation and any equipment. Additionally, a protective filter would go with the service, so adults in the household could regulate their child's Internet use.