Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March, many students have had to attend their classes online via Zoom meetings and other educational platforms. This has led not only to added difficulty learning for millions of children and teenagers across the U.S., it has also led to a spike in student absenteeism. These problems are not so much a matter of students’ individual motivation or work ethic as they are issues of economic inequality. Working class and poor families statistically have less access to the internet and the other necessary technologies that are now prerequisites for students to go to school. The state of New Mexico provides a case in point.
New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the nation with some of the lowest social indicators for its children. It also ranks among the states with the lowest rates of connection to broadband internet, with nearly a quarter of New Mexican students having no access to the internet at home. Even among households that have managed to afford a subscription to an internet service, many still cannot connect to their classes. This is either because they could not afford the service plan for the required speed, or they live in areas that internet monopolies have deemed not profitable and have thus not developed the local infrastructure with the latest technology. This huge gap in access to the internet is felt most in poor neighborhoods in both urban and rural areas, and especially in Native American communities.
On October 6, Albuquerque’s KOB-TV News released a report detailing a new program from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Offices, titled “Operation Educational Encouragement.” BCSO deputies are mandated to visit the homes of students who have been missing their virtual classes. According to the report, this requirement is not supposed to be a punitive measure for the families, but rather a way for officers to “double-check” on families and make sure that no child abuse or neglect is occurring.
Of course, this is absurd. As with any other part of the country, NM law enforcement are not known for resolving domestic violence or child abuse cases and bringing justice to victims. In fact, the police are actually some of the leading perpetrators of these crimes – the rate of domestic violence among cops is two to four times that of the general population, with 40 percent of police officers reportedly abusing their families!
The police in this operation will not function as case managers, helping to connect needy families to free internet service and other resources to address their lack of access to basic modern technologies. Because police departments everywhere are always flush with cash while vitally needed social services are perpetually on the budgetary chopping block, police become the local go-to, deployed to deal with things that should have absolutely nothing to do with the police, like “truancy.”
The predictable result will be further demonization and intimidation of poor and working families, particularly families of color, and increased potential for authorities to hit parents with charges of child neglect when their only “crime” may be not having enough income to purchase overpriced monopoly internet service. These families then become unnecessarily involved in the legal system and with child protective services, when what they truly need is an economic and political system that guarantees all of their basic needs for living, as well as a living wage or guaranteed income that would ensure their access to other necessities.
Like other public utilities such as electric, gas and water, access to the internet must be free and accessible to all. This is especially true in the time of COVID-19, when so many of our daily activities must be conducted remotely, but it is also true in non-pandemic times. It is virtually impossible to function in modern society without access to computers and the internet. Our current economic and political system, however, prioritizes private profit for major companies like Xfinity, Comcast and CenturyLink over the collective needs of the people. We need a new system to ensure all people’s needs are met.