Juliana Njoku is the Executive Director and Founder of WorkforceStrong, an Atlanta-based non-profit providing rental housing assistance for middle-income working families and individuals.

In Washington, a $170 billion investment in affordable housing hangs in the balance as Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan faces opposition.  When paired with the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden recently signed into law, we’re at a historical turning point in the fight to build more livable and affordable communities for working families. 

This one-two punch recognizes that affordable living requires more than just four walls and a roof.  The infrastructure bill, for example, will deliver Georgia $1.4 billion to improve public transit – a massive win for households of color which are almost 4 times more likely to commute to work via train or bus.  We’ll also receive $913 million for clean water projects, which will help remove remove lead pipes from the 86,000 Georgia homes where they’re still in use.

The bill also secures $42 billion to expand broadband access, including wiring low-income urban apartment buildings that remain cut off from the lightning-fast networks passing just outside their front doors.  And to make sure low-income and working-class Georgians can afford to connect to these networks, the bill includes a transformative Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) that will offer up to $30 a month to any household earning less than double the poverty line.

All told, these investments in digital opportunity are the boldest effort ever undertaken to close Georgia’s digital divide.  They’re a recognition that full enfranchisement in modern America – economically, socially, and politically – requires being connected.

But just as affordable living demands solutions well beyond housing construction, universal connectivity is a goal that won’t be achieved simply by offering low-cost or free broadband to families in need.   The challenge here is a lot more complex – so the solution needs to be a lot more comprehensive.

We need to think about these challenges – housing security, broadband connectivity, educational and economic opportunity – as inexorably linked.  And as the ACP launches in January, we need to bring this “wraparound thinking” to the challenge of getting eligible families signed up.

Surveys show, for example, that 15% of low-income families cite housing challenges as the reason they’re not online.  Even if broadband service is available for free, it’s hard for a family to connect when they don’t know where they’ll be living next month.  So tackling housing affordability is actually part and parcel of tackling digital inequality.

Digital literacy is another big barrier.  One-third of U.S. workers have limited or no digital skills.  Those without this basic digital fluency will find it harder to navigate enrolment and sign-up forms – and may be more skeptical that it’s even worth it.

That’s why community non-profits serving underprivileged neighborhoods – from rec centers to libraries to churches – need to be equipped and funded to offer classes and other training resources on-site.  We don’t need to re-invent the wheel with an entirely new layer of bureaucracy; instead, let’s empower the groups and leaders already present on the ground and in the daily lives of those who need the most help here.

We know this approach can work.  Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, for example, has connected 10 million low-income Americans to home broadband in part by working with Boys & Girls Clubs and other local partners to offer these critical training resources.

Working through established local organizations will also help overcome trust gaps.  In on recent survey of low-income families with school-aged children, 30% voiced skepticism that “free broadband” programs sounded too good to be true.  That’s why the messenger matters just as much as the message here: skeptics and holdouts may be more confident if they about the ACP from a neighbor, a pastor, or a child’s teacher.

Encouragingly, the infrastructure bill includes a $2.75 billion Digital Equity grant program to fund this kind of neighborhood-based outreach.

This kind of all-hands-on-deck approach to attacking the digital divide will help expand opportunity and mobility for working families across Georgia.  With a home broadband connection, students will have an easier time keeping up with their classmates on homework.  Parents stuck in low-wage jobs will have an easier time accessing online training programs and hunting for better opportunities.  Older Americans will be able to more easily connect with doctors through telehealth.

We can tackle all of these challenges – housing security, digital inequality, economic mobility – if we recognize they’re all interlocking pieces of the same puzzle.  Let’s empower front-line community partners to lead the charge.

Juliana Njoku

Juliana Njoku is the Executive Director and Founder of WorkforceStrong, an Atlanta-based non-profit providing rental housing assistance for middle-income working families and individuals.