The term "digital divide" is less prevalent these days, but there's still a gap between higher- and lower-income Americans when it comes to Internet access and usage.
Some 95% of Americans living in households earning $75,000 or more a year use the Internet at least occasionally, compared with 70% of households earning less, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The study also found that the relatively well-to-do were more likely to have broadband access at home and more technology and communications gear.
So 93% of home Internet users at or above the $75,000 threshold had broadband compared to 85% below it -- not a big difference. But when income levels are broken out across all U.S. households, this reveals wider discrepancies.
Looking beyond just Internet users, 87% of those in the $75,000 income tier have home broadband connections compared to two-thirds (64%) making between $30,000 and $49,999, and only 40% of households earning less than $30,000.
The disparity is not as sharp in comparing cell phone ownership, with 75% of those making less than $30,000 having mobile devices compared with 95% of households earning $75,000 or more. Mobile phones are relatively cheap and more ubiquitous.
Wealthier Americans also own more gadgets overall than the less well-off. Nearly four out of five households (79%) earning $75,000 or more have desktop and laptop computers compared to 55% and 47%, respectively, below that level. And 70% in the upper-income range have iPods or MP3 players versus 42% of lower-income people.
The penetration of newer devices like e-readers and tablet computers is still small among all groups, but not surprisingly, higher among more affluent consumers. So 12% earning $75,000 or more own a Kindle or other e-reader, and 9% own an iPad or other tablet. That compares to 3% for each type of device among under-$75,000 earners.
Higher-income Internet users also tend to be more active -- going online multiple times a day, both at home and work. They also pursue a wider range of activities, with 93% using email, 80% accessing online news, 71% paying bills online and 88% researching products via the Web, among other tasks.
On any given day, 55% of those in the $75,000-plus bracket will use email and 40% will research a product, for example, compared to 31% and 19% of Internet users earning under $30,000.
Those who are better off were also more likely to go online for health-related information. Four out of five at the $75,000 income level consulted the Web on medical issues, compared to 54% in the lowest income segment surveyed.
"The correlation between higher income and increased Internet usage was consistent for nearly every online activity and technology," said Jim Jansen, a Pew senior Fellow and the report's author. "Income was a significant factor, even when accounting for other attributes, such as age, education, race, gender, and community type."
But the study points out that higher-income households have not abandoned traditional media as a result of embracing the Web. On a typical day, 76% turn to TV for local and national news, 51% read a print newspaper for local news, and 22% for national news.
Income-based disparities were also evident in e-commerce, with 81% in the $75,000 or more group buying physical products online, while only 51% in the under-$30,000 income segment doing so. There was less variation in purchases of digital goods like songs or videos. Half of those in the top income group pay for digital content compared to 46% earning between $50,000 and $74,999, 41% in the $30,000-$49,999 segment, and 39% of those who make less than $30,000.
Wealthier households having more gadgets or higher levels of Internet access or e-commerce activity may seem intuitive. But Jansen said wealth itself doesn't necessarily explain why lower-earning groups with Web access at home don't rely on the Internet as much.
"Once you have access, and want to be a frugal consumer, for example, or wisely manage your own health, you could argue there's almost a stronger incentive for lower-income groups to use the Internet," he said.
Given that $75,000 is only about one-and-a-half times the median household income of $49,777, the Pew report also examined Internet habits for households earning more than $150,000. True to the correlation between wealth and Web use, this subset of the population was even more technocentric those below it.
Nearly all (96%) use the Internet or email, nine in ten (89%) have searched online for maps or directions, 86% have researched a product and 82% get a portion of their news online. Furthermore, the affluent are more likely than other Internet users to participate in video chat (22% more likely), pay bills online (19%) and get online news (11%).
The data for the Pew study on Internet use according to income was collected through a series of telephone interviews conducted between December 2009 and September 2010. The three surveys during that period involved samples of 2,259, 2,252 and 3,001 adults 18 and older.