Right now, the best thing people can do for public health is to isolate themselves at home. The best thing people can do for the economy is to continue working. Both are possible for people who have reliable internet access and jobs that can be performed remotely. For everyone else, they are mutually exclusive.
I have had the privilege of working from home during this time, but my experience is the exception rather than the norm in Mississippi, which has among the nation’s lowest rates of broadband access and the highest share of jobs that cannot be performed remotely. Given that Governor Reeves has granted businesses wide latitude to stay open, many Mississippians face a terrible dilemma: risk their health to continue going to work, or risk their jobs to stay healthy?
Nearly one-quarter of Mississippi’s workers are employed in “contact-intensive” occupations that are performed in close proximity to others. Examples include barbers and hairstylists, home healthcare aides, and food service workers. A handful of contact-intensive jobs may be temporarily shifted to the home (e.g. professors teaching classes online) but the vast majority cannot. Mississippi has the highest percentage of these face-to-face jobs in the country, which puts a disproportionate share of the state’s workforce at risk of being furloughed or laid off.
The risk is not spread evenly across all groups: national data shows wide racial and socioeconomic disparities in the ability to work from home. Nearly 30% of white workers reported that they had the ability to do their job at home, compared to 20% of black and 16% of Latino workers. One in two people with a bachelor’s degree could telework, but only one in 25 who didn’t complete high school. And people in the top quarter of the income distribution were six times more likely to be able to work remotely as people in the bottom quarter (61.5% to 9.2%). Across race, education, and income, the makeup of Mississippi’s workforce is tilted steeply toward the groups that are least likely to be able to work from home.
Even if Mississippians are lucky enough to have the option of teleworking, it’s no sure bet that they have access to broadband internet at home. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 21% of Mississippians live in areas where broadband is not available. A report from the company Broadband Now claims that the digital divide is actually twice as wide, with more than 40% of Mississippi’s population without access, mostly in rural areas. In either analysis, Mississippians rank among the least connected in the country. The availability and cost of broadband also conspire to produce the same racial and socioeconomic disparities that are present in the ability to work remotely.
Of course, the value of broadband is not only economic. It allows people to receive up-to-date information about the virus, including the location of testing sites and the announcement of stay-in-place orders. Students can continue to do schoolwork or fill out college applications. People can respond to the Census, which will determine their community’s share of federal funding for healthcare, among other things. And they can stave off quarantine boredom by binge-watching Netflix.
As with the healthcare and economic challenges I’ve covered in previous editions, an ounce of prevention would’ve been worth a pound of cure. Mississippi’s broadband deployment has lagged because it has not been a priority. Unlike our neighboring states, there is no coordinating agency or statewide plan, only local and business-led initiatives. While the Legislature did pass a bill last year allowing electric co-ops to offer internet service in rural areas, they committed no funding — instead hoping for federal grants to build out the infrastructure.