News out this month of a $15 million partnership between the Comcast Corporation and the YMCA aimed at improving digital literacy among low-income families. 

“We are proud to elevate the impact of the Y,” Comcast Senior Executive Vice President David Cohen said when announcing the program, “and help connect even more people to the resources they need to achieve their dreams." This current program—which includes some modest grants to big-city Ys but mostly comes in the form of free air-time for YMCA PSAs—folds itself under Comcast’s broader efforts at expanding internet access. Since 2011 the company claims to have connected some 750,000 low-income families to the web.

This is, quite obviously, a case of a company’s philanthropic endeavors following rather closely upon its business interests. It also gels with the Y’s recent attempt at a re-brand. Apparently trying to shake its image as a small-scale meeting-place for truant youth and health-conscious geriatrics, the Y announced recently a campaign they’re calling ‘For a Better Us,’ which will develop and highlight the organization’s many community-building programs across more than ten thousand American neighborhoods. The Y is framing these efforts as a way to address social inequality. “Closing gaps and increasing access to services that help kids and families reach their full potential is a key aspect of the Y’s mission,” says YMCA CEO Kevin Washington. This current partnership therefore allows the Y to capitalize on a very fashionable topic. 

But the presence of self-interested motives is no real strike against the content of the program itself. Digital literacy is a real issue, and one that demands the attention of non-profits. Opting out of the digital age is no longer possible, and people will increasingly need to be able to know how to use the internet to fill basic needs, like paying a credit card bill or planning a trip. 

Yet when they think about digital connectivity most people focus on the question of access. A 2015 White House report finds that a full 98% of Americans already have some sort of access to internet services, though, so access isn’t really the issue. It’s competency. In which case these community-based programs need to focus not just on disadvantaged youth but all those who struggle to use a computer effectively. Of course, when one considers ease of use rather than mere connectivity, age and not income becomes the relevant variable. The anxiety and social isolation that can effect the elderly, for instance, because of their discomfort with the basics of internet use can be substantial. 

As long as we’re expanding digital literacy, let’s make sure such efforts are reaching everyone who needs them. 


Photo credit: Gideon Tsang via / CC BY-SA