1.4.1 Proportion of the population living in households with access to basic services

In order to localize this indicator, our team’s assessment included documentation of the percentage of housing units lacking complete plumbing and telephone services, the percentage of the population with reported access to clean water, and the percentage of the population with a broadband internet subscription. A complete snapshot of these parameters is available for download within our metadata.


Basic services take on a different definition depending on the nation, defining entity, and the context. One notable definition comes from UN Stats, who define it as “…public service provision systems that meet human basic needs including drinking water, sanitation, hygiene, energy, mobility, waste collection, health care, education and information technologies.” The report then goes on to outline the necessary conditions for these needs to be actualized. This definition takes a broader view of basic services, viewing the services as including those necessary for survival (water), those necessary to facilitate high quality of life (mobility, health care), and those necessary to function in the 21st century (education, information technologies). Some definitions are broader and, as a result, perhaps less stringent — a report for the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health defined basic services as “…services that ensure a decent, acceptable standard of living in communities and facilitate the establishment of environments in which public health and safety can be promoted.”

This can be analogized to a model adopted in many social democratic countries, known as the “Universal Basic Services” model, or UBS. UBS views entitlements owed to citizens along a rubric of material safety, opportunity, and participation, necessitating guaranteed shelter, sustenance, healthcare, education, transportation, and legal support. However, this is quite a bit more expansive than the basic service understanding adopted by UN Stats, as it includes a portfolio of rights to not only survive within society but to maximize the engagement of the citizenry. Notably, the definition utilized in Western industrialized countries may be more comprehensive than the definition used in less-developed countries, as evinced by the definition used by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, which defines it as water, sanitation, refuse removal, and electricity.

Unfortunately, there is no clear analogue to the UN Stats definition or UBS in the context of the United States. National legislation does not set out a clear explanation of what basic services would entail, and there is no constitutional guarantee for basic services (given the US Constitution’s emphasis on negative as opposed to positive rights). This may reflect a cultural and political difference between the United States and the comparatively more left-leaning countries in Europe in particular. However, this may be changing given the disparities highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. Some have argued that the coronavirus may be an awakening that highlights the stark need for a basic package of benefits guaranteed to Americans, analogous to the UBS model in some European countries. These proposals utilize a similar framework of safety, participation, and opportunity.

There are two core opportunities for the United States going forward — adopting a national definition of basic services, and moving to guarantee them. The former seems fairly uncontroversial — the lack of definition operates as a political lacuna, making it challenging for governmental entities (and those in civil society) to assess whether the United States is compliant with a set of benchmarks. The latter is more difficult, and would necessitate sweeping changes to the administrative state in the country. However, it is reasonable to try to move closer to the attainment of both positive and negative rights, resembling the guarantees in other nations.


Despite being only a few decades old, the world-wide computer network known as the Internet has become so entrenched in modern society that some argue internet access is a basic human right. Currently, there is no explicit, universal recognition of internet access as a human right. The closest is a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution for the “promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,” adopted in the summer of 2016. The resolution reaffirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online”, recommending states protect freedoms and privacy online, encouraging states to provide and expand internet access to citizens, and discouraging the intentional disruption or prevention of internet access (including internet blackouts, a popular tool for governments to suppress dissent). While an important step, the resolution lacks enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, its scope is narrowed because it was adopted as an addition to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Increasingly, the Internet is not just a vehicle for expression but an avenue through which to secure other human rights. With many employers using online-only application processes, internet access is vital to securing the right to work (guaranteed by UDHR Article 23). Meanwhile, the digital “homework gap”— how Pew Research Center refers to the problem of school-age children lacking connectivity required to complete schoolwork at home— demonstrates that for many students, the right to education (guaranteed by UDHR Article 26) depends on the internet as well.

Beginning in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated starkly the necessity of internet access as stay-at-home orders shifted work, school, and other aspects of life to virtual spaces. It also exposed the deep digital divide that leaves individuals across the globe without access to a computer and/or broadband internet, including millions of Americans. The digital divide disproportionately impacts low-income individuals and communities of color. Thus the switch to online learning, working, and more exacerbated existing inequities for those without internet access. For instance, students already unable to complete schoolwork at home found themselves locked out of schools, libraries, and other public places where they could get online. Since the internet is also a key source of life-saving information about the pandemic and how to keep yourself safe, as Gregory Porumbescu of Rutgers University puts it, “finding ways to bridge the digital divide is quickly becoming a matter of life and death.” Even once the pandemic ends, experts predict that some of the switches to online procedures may never revert back; reliance on the internet in modern society will continue, making internet access a human right that governments must work to secure for all citizens.

Instilled with new urgency by pandemic realities, officials are working to close the digital divide in the DMV. In summer 2020, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser launched the Tech Together DC initiative, a “partnership between DC government, non-profit community, academia and industry working together to bridge the digital divide through access, training and opportunity.” The initiative’s first action was the $3.3 million Internet for All program, which provided free internet access to 25,000 low-income students and families for the 2020-2021 school year. Approximately 48,000 households in DC either have no internet, unreliable internet, or no computer; moving forward the Tech Together DC initiative aims to ensure reliable, high-quality internet access for those households, particularly in Wards 5, 7, and 8. In April 2021, Maryland lawmakers passed the Digital Connectivity Act (SB66/HB97) to ensure “every resident of the State is supported by high-quality broadband Internet service at an affordable price and has the tools necessary to use and take advantage of the Internet.” The bill expanded the Office of Rural Broadband, originally established in 2017, into a statewide organization known as the Office of Statewide Broadband. By July 2022, the new office must develop a plan to establish reliable broadband access for all Maryland residents by 2026, using $300 million in American Rescue Act funds. In July 2021, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a plan to invest $700 million in American Rescue Plan funding to achieve universal broadband internet access by 2024. The federal funds enabled Virginia to expedite what was originally a ten-year goal to “close the digital divide in our Commonwealth and treat internet service like the 21st century necessity that it is—not just a luxury for some, but an essential utility for all” by 2028.