Why Are the Rich So Good at the Internet?

rich woman internet user

Pew Internet has released a report finding that income is the strongest predictor of whether, how often, and in what ways Americans use the web. The report adds nuance—and a few surprises—to existing research on America's digital divide. It even suggests the existence of a tipping point, where Internet use takes off at a certain income level.

A lot of this makes intuitive sense. After all, laptops and broadband cost money. But the Pew report finds that even among groups that own the necessary technology, less wealth equates to less (and less varied) Internet usage.

"Many of these households are not impoverished," the report's author, Jim Jansen, tells Fast Company. "Many do have the technology, but for variety of reasons do not engage in certain activities as frequently." It's predominantly the wealthy who take advantage of the benefits offered by the web—even though it's the less wealthy who could use them more.

The report, an umbrella analysis of three Pew surveys conducted in 2009 and 2010, compares Internet use among American households in four different income brackets: less than $30,000 a year; $30,000-50,000; $50,000-75,000; and greater than $75,000. Respondents—more than 3,000 people participated—were asked a variety of questions about how often they used the Internet, and what sorts of services they took advantage of (such as email, online news, booking travel online, or health research).

As might be expected, the wealthier used the Internet more. But the degree of the spread was a surprise, says Jansen. Almost 90% of the wealthiest respondents reported broadband access at home. Of those in the under-$30,000 households, that figure was only 40%. "I would expect some type of correlation," says Jansen. "But we controlled for community type—urban, rural, suburban—educational attainment, race, ethnicity, gender, and age." None was nearly so strongly correlated as income.

Age did have some effect, and rural regions were a good deal less wired than their urban peers. Jansen guesses that has to do, simply, with broadband infrastructure; his own family lives "in the sticks of Missouri," and still rely on dial-up access. "But even with those—age, community type—the practical effects very minor," he says.

The relationship between money and Internet use is a real puzzle. Once a modestly middle-class family buys a computer and Internet access, why is it that they spend less time researching products online than their wealthier counterparts, given that they have a tighter budget than the ultra-wealthy?

Jansen notes that for many questions Pew asked about Internet use, there appeared to be a tipping point somewhere in the $30,000-$50,000 range. Consider, for instance, the data on those who researched products online. Only 67% of lowest-income Internet users research products online. Make it over the hump into the $30,000-$50,000 bracket, though, and all of a sudden 81% of internet users do so—a jump of 14 points. But then as you climb the income ladder, the change in behavior begins to level out, just climbing a few percentage points with each bracket. It was a pattern noted in several other realms of Internet behavior.

"It would be interesting to look at what is going on at that particular income level," says Jansen, suggesting a potential tack for further research, "that seems to indicate a fairly robust use of technology and interest."

Jansen, like any careful researcher, cautions against confusing correlation with causation. It may be that people are using the web to make their fortunes, and not using their fortunes to surf the web. But his report, which can be found on Pew Internet's site, shows the correlation clearer than anything yet. "We're talking about double-digit differences in some of these activities. I found that very striking," says Jansen.

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  • Gregory Wexler

    There was a movie made a long time ago called "Fantastic Planet" that's relevant to this discussion. But without going into too much detail, we should enable 'earned' internet access (free... but earned in some manner) and empower virtually everyone -- we'll RAISE THE BAR a little and all those whom seek will benefit. 'RE-PURPSE an existing tax for better use (don't create a new one) and society will gain in the long run. Wow - easy! Now it's the execution that's the challenge.

  • ballbusta

    Listen folks, ya know why people who make less than $30k don’t use the internet to research products? It’s the same reason why they don’t buy products on the internet. And it’s the same reason why they don’t book their vacations to the Riviera on the internet. And it’s the same reason why they don’t do online banking. ‘CAUSE THEY AIN”T GOT NO MONEY. They cannot even afford to pay for online access. How can blue-collar families afford what you take for granted when all of the blue-collar jobs are shipped overseas or taken over by illegal aliens? Ya don’t need a PhD to figure this out.

  • Todd Burkhalter

    Great report. Yet isn't it interesting that some of the last on-line adopters are financial institutions. As an advisor I am personally greatly limited to on-line marketing.

  • Lana Terry

    The other factor is the motivation and determination to learn and succeed in life that results in better education (including self-education), better jobs and higher income. Attending private school is a perk but not a requirement. Having sufficient mental capacity and desire to learn is. The jump between two income classes clearly shows the divide between secondary and post-secondary education and corresponding earning potential. I agree with Nancy that many online activities are "productivity" type, but they also save money. In my experience, people with low income don't really value money, they want it "now" regardless of cost. People with higher income value both time and money, that's one of the reasons why they have more money. The Internet can definetely help with that.

  • Berge Koulajian

    saw the title of this article and made the effort to read it after checking it was one page, as i busy.

    I use the internet a good 3 hours a day outside work ........ and whatever my income which is, its higher than 75K, that does not make me even close to wealthy as they pay more than that for a return private jet flight LA/Paris to attend a wedding ....... minus penthouses rented in hotels ............ 20K dresses .... gifts

    you are talking a cool $120K to attend a bloody wedding, and get tipsy with your friends on Crystal, while you were in a small cabin flying alone with your dog ...... and your hairstylist who charges 20K for the occasion .......

    Patricia I think reflected the actual reality like a perfectly polished glass door we bang into....... as I think the article was showing the "reality" through a really stained glass door. Patricia you rock and I would trust your opinion .......

    As to the writer/researcher of this article David, maybe he has a long list of great articles to be given access to this space with a lot exposure.... I think it looks like a cake with way too much baking powder .......

    To fill space non credible statements are made, what about the people who make $1-5M/year there is millions of those....... we put them and their Birkin bags, Blahnicks, in the same basket as people who if they buy a new car on finance this year, it means that the $3000 vacation planned would have to wait another year ......?

    i have trouble seeing a major tipping point between 67% of the less fortunate poor and 88% of the middle class up to wealthy. what do they look for price? specs? maybe the 88% dont look at price much ....

    grade: C

    all good ,

  • Lee Trucks

    Don't forget that a lot of these categories are related to finance. The lower the income, the less likely to have a bank account or credit card so that the idea of online banking, payng bill, buying products and making travel reservations is not realistic. All you're doing here is pointing out that the more money you make the more opportunities your have. Duh.

  • Patricia Germelman

    Thanks for posting this comment. Duh was my thought, precisely. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Jim Dean

    I think the article highlights a real divide. While my post, below, speaks in generalities without regarding exceptional individuals, it reflects the spirit of my experience. I work the late shift in a university library that serves three groups: Students attending a low difficulty suite of social degree programs, students in competitive and difficult hard science programs, and city-dwelling community members. The science students have very high level of productive technology skills, the social program students have limited skills, and community members have very limited skills. Within the science student group, the first generation, low income students have no idea how to use resources. The privileged students (the majority of the science students) need only a brief guide into the structure of library resources. Within the social degree programs group, the students as a whole need large amounts of support and this corresponds with the more lax educational requirements that go with the program, which in turn reflects the population of adult students with families and more low income students. (Success in higher education is still the pervue of the wealthy in the USA, though opportunity programs can bridge the gap.) Finally, the community members can be the very poor, who live in subsidized housing down the street and they are often either nervous or tune me out when I describe the technology systems available to them. Their skills are often extremely low.

    In all cases, people come to the library to do productive work of different kind. Basic tasks, such as recognizing a need. turning into a question, and finding the answer may not happen in the economically disadvantaged groups. I have to really "walk" disadvantaged students through basic research and technology tasks. For example, I came across the belief, more than once, that getting the lowest possible price on a legal text book (as opposed to pirated) is cheating and should not be done. The wealthier students simply do not think like that, they assume they deserve low cost supplies and seek the supplies out at the lowest possible cost. The wealthier student will buy things online and save money. The poorer student prefers to go to the local store. It's really, really, discomforting to witness the divide being talked about in this article and I feel it's real. Even within higher education, which should provide a leveler for those who have disadvantaged backgrounds, the use of technology remains inefficient.

  • Bill Hazelton

    Is a household income of $75k+ 'rich'? Two middle-class people in employment should make this without too much trouble, and if you went to a private school, why are you 'slumming' at only $75k?

    What's most interesting here is the correlation was strongest between income and internet usage patterns, but that all the change was between two income classes. Clearly the distinctions in income are a bit coarse, and this would need to be investigated more closely first. The second point is that general consumer savvy wasn't a factor (hard to measure), as people in the lower socio-economic sector often don't have as many options here. For example, many don't have bank accounts, many don't shop around widely (time constraints), and there isn't a lot of money left over for travel. What would need to be investigated more closely is the non-internet habits and needs, and then see if the internet access makes any changes more likely. This is where you may find the digital divide more starkly illustrated.

  • Patricia Germelman

    You're kidding me with this article, right? How about the fact that the rich have better, faster tech ...and the fact that they are educated in better schools with more tech-saavy teachers. (This is a sweeping generalization, but on the whole, I have to believe private schools have top of the line equipment and teachers, no?) And I bet the rich aren't working part-time jobs at McDonald's to make ends meet. Who has time to surf the web for deals when you're working two jobs and raising a family. You missed the mark in a big way with this article. Shame, shame, shame on you. I hope and pray this stat doesn't get bantered around and taken to heart by those who simply can't surf like the rich.

  • Nancy

    I know plenty of people in the under $50K range. They aren't working more hours in the day. They have bank accounts and bills to pay. Credit cards are just one bill people have. I pay all bills online, except for the county utility due to the fact that they charge a monstrous fee to do so. Everyone has to pay the electric and water.

    What I've found in my discussions is that there is a level of distrust that is oddly correlated to those income breaks. In my anecdotal experience, that is.

    People that make more money actually spend quite a few hours in the day at work. Often in excess of 10. So the use of the internet for speed and ease of use to do these studied items... pay bills (either by point and click or autopay), make travel reservations, compare products/prices, shop online... These are all time saving activities. The county utility bill is the most frequently delinquent bill I have BECAUSE I have to find my checkbook, find the paper bill, find a STAMP, find the time to do all that and sit down and write the check. If they had autopay, I'd never be late. If they had online payments, I'd never be late. I don't have time to "sit down and pay bills" anymore.

    This didn't measure "surfing". It didn't measure how many hours spent on Facebook or YouTube. It measured "productivity" type activities. And it comes to little surprise to me that those who make more money are more likely to use the internet to shave minutes off routine activities.

    I've had more time than money at times in my life. I could spend TIME and so that's what I did. Now I can spend the money, I just don't have time to go 'out and about' for, say, Christmas shopping, like I once did. I'd rather pay to have it shipped to me. So... I'm online.

    I don't think this rises to the level of "shame shame shame". The results of the study are what they are.

  • John Vasko

    I think you hit the nail on your head with your response. I have to say though that I do love the photoshop work done in the image!

  • Patricia Germelman

    Thanks, John. After reading the other comments, re-reading the FastCompany article and the Pew Report, I still think so. And you're right, nice photoshop work!

  • Mark Von Der Linn

    I'm glad this draws the critical distinction between correlation and causation, something the media tends to not do. But I think the point is contradicted by then implying that the causation is there, but might simply be the reverse of what it seems. There is always a third alternative: Correlation with some other factor the researcher hasn't thought to measure. In this case some other factor that drives both income and internet use.