Internet a Rich Man's Plaything: Pew

New study from venerable research group highlights gap between well-off and lower-income Americans' Internet activities and technology usage.
Posted November 24, 2010

Kenneth Corbin

Is the Internet the playground of the rich?

Higher-income households report markedly higher rates of Internet and cell-phone usage than those of more modest means, according to a new study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Pew's data from a series of phone surveys conducted earlier this year suggests a strong link between income and technology uptake, with far more affluent Americans saying they have high-speed Internet connections at home and more frequently engage in online activities such as reading news and paying bills than low-earning respondents.

Ninety-three percent of high-earning Internet users have a broadband connection at home, Pew found. Among households earning less than $75,000, that proportion dropped to 85 percent.

"Those who are better off financially capitalize on many of the tools that define internet use," Jim Jansen, a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center and author of the report, said in a statement. "These higher-income Americans use the internet in higher numbers and greater frequency than their less well-off peers."

When Pew parsed its data further to look at the higher income bracket, the pattern of technology usage was even more striking.

"Examining those living in households with an income of $150,000 or more, there are significant differences with the other income groups. The affluent are significantly more likely to use the internet (30 percent more) and email (25 percent more) than the rest of the American population," Jansen wrote in the report. "In fact, technology saturates the lives of affluent Americans."

The study comes amid ongoing efforts by federal policymakers to bridge the digital divide with affordable, universal broadband service. At the direction of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission published a national broadband plan earlier this year detailing a lengthy policy agenda to bring high-speed Internet service to rural and low-income Americans, including a reform of the federal telecom subsidy to include broadband service, and an initiative to reallocate spectrum for wireless networks.

Pew's latest survey helps to quantify the effect that income disparities have on technology ownership and usage, across the board.

For instance, Pew found that 79 percent of high-income households have a desktop computer, compared to 55 percent of lower-earning households. Similarly, 79 percent of high-income respondents said they have a laptop computer, compared to just 47 percent of lower-income participants.

Comparable gaps surfaced in ownership of other devices, including iPods, e-book readers and tablet computers.

"The correlation between higher income and increased Internet usage was consistent for nearly every online activity and technology," Jansen said. "Income was a significant factor, even when accounting for other attributes, such as age, education, race, gender and community type."

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

Tags: broadband, digital divide, mobile apps, Pew Internet

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