Internet access makes big difference in impoverished regions

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Improving internet access in rural areas can improve the economy in those areas. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Expanding internet access in rural areas can reduce poverty and increase access to public services such as health care and education, according to a new study using data from Mexico that, researchers say, shows the internet should be treated as a human right.

The positive effects of internet access were stronger in more impoverished and unequal regions of the country than in more developed areas, Mexican researchers found in a new paper for New Media & Society, suggesting that efforts to increase access should prioritize more vulnerable areas. 

"If you want a country that is less unequal, you need to improve access to the internet for those communities, those regions where poor people do not have access," said Jorge Mora-Rivera, an economist at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education. "If you don't have access to the internet, you don't have access to many things."

The researchers said the results should inform conversations about internet access around the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries. In the U.S., President Joe Biden is pushing for $100 billion in spending to increase high-speed internet access as part of a broader infrastructure plan, arguing that the service will spur economic growth by increasing access to work opportunities and education. 

The primary issue at hand in the U.S. involves improving the speed of internet access. But in Mexico, the priority is making sure people have access to the internet at all. Just 39% of rural Mexicans have internet access, compared with 71% of urban residents, according to Mora-Rivera and his co-author, Fernando García-Mora of The College of Mexico, in Mexico City. 

Rural communities are also more impoverished than cities, with 55% of rural Mexicans living in poverty, compared with 42% of the overall population. 

Using a pair of surveys conducted in 2016 and 2018 that covered about 250,000 Mexicans, Mora-Rivera and García-Mora found that access to the internet decreased individuals' likelihood of being in poverty by a significant margin across the country. The effect was most pronounced in impoverished southwest Mexico, where an individual with internet in their home was 21.5% less likely to be in poverty than an individual who did not. By contrast, in the wealthier northwest, internet in the home reduced the likelihood of being in poverty by 12.6%. 

The researchers reached these figures by creating a counterfactual group through a propensity score matching treatment, a technique developed to estimate causality in cross-sectional survey data. 

"This study showed that in terms of information and communications technologies or internet penetration, there are many Mexicos," said Mora-Rivera. "There are some regions that are more like developed countries, and there are other regions that are almost equal to African countries [in terms of internet access]." 

The paper is the first nationwide examination of internet access and poverty across Mexico, according to the researchers; other scholars examining the issue have conducted case studies

Mora-Rivera and García-Mora wrote their paper using data from before the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered many businesses and moved many schools and universities online. The pandemic has almost certainly increased the association between lack of internet access and poverty in Mexico, Mora-Rivera said. He plans to do a follow-up study when more data from 2020 becomes available later this year.

"These results could be worse in terms of digital inequality," he said. 

The paper shows that the Mexican government should better target its internet infrastructure efforts in poorer regions, according to Mora-Rivera. 

The researchers also said that, considering the internet's importance in increasing access to health care and education, governments should classify internet access as a human right. 

"Access to [information and communication technology] in general, and the internet in particular, should be considered as a human right that coexists with and helps to promote the exercise of other fundamental social rights such as education, health, culture, freedom of expression and social mobility," García-Mora and Mora-Rivera wrote. "This access would make it possible to improve the living standards of rural households in general, and to an even greater extent in those facing higher vulnerability, which could in turn translate into lower poverty levels, as our results highlight." 

Mora-Rivera has studied rural economies in Mexico for two decades. The work has made him realize the extent to which the internet is a powerful tool for connecting people to work opportunities, education and health care, sparking his interest in quantifying the effects of internet access, he said. 

The study, "Exploring the impacts of Internet access on poverty: A regional analysis of rural Mexico," published March 29 in New Media & Society, was authored by Jorge Mora-Rivera, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education; and Fernando García-Mora, The College of Mexico. 

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