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President Shrugs at the Digital Divide
Published on Wednesday, July 17, 2002 in the Boston Globe
President Shrugs at the Digital Divide
by Derrick Z. Jackson
 

HAVING FALLEN into a massive digit divide created by Arthur Andersen, Enron, WorldCom, the Dow, and his own business dealings, President Bush has not generated much publicity for blowing up the bridge over the digital divide.

Last February, his Commerce Department put out a rosy report, ''A Nation Online,'' that said: ''With more than half of Americans using computers and the Internet, we are truly a nation online.''

It turned out to be an excuse to take federal dollars offline. His 2003 budget called for the elimination of programs in the Education Department and the Commerce Department that helped low-income communities build computer labs for children's education, adult literacy, and job training.

The programs, started by President Clinton, helped Indian tribes communicate across miles of desert and plain, helped elders learn to use computers, and helped teenagers do research after school.

Bush says the programs are no longer necessary. In March, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said, ''With the expansion of the Internet and related technologies into all sectors of society, the administration believes federal subsidies are no longer justified to prove the usefulness of such technologies.''

All sectors of society? In the United States, 94 percent of homes have a telephone, 99 percent have a radio, 98 percent have a television, and 85 percent have a VCR, according to ''A Nation Online.'' When it comes to the Internet, the Commerce Department seems quite happy that only 56 percent of American homes have a computer or that 54 percent of Americans use the Internet. The report trumpets the fact that 90 percent of children between 5 and 17 now use computers. It says that school and library computers successfully bridge the gap for families who cannot afford a computer at home and that Internet use is growing rapidly among low-income households.

''I am heartened by this report's findings that all groups of individuals are using these technologies in increasingly greater numbers,'' Evans said. ''The vast majority of our youth are now Internet users. This development holds special promise for our economic future; today's children who gain comfort and aptitude with new information technologies will be tomorrow's skilled workers and innovators for our country.''

People might not be so heartened after seeing a Ford Foundation-funded report released this month by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Benton Foundation. The report reminded readers that while Internet use by low-income people is growing, it still remains at very low levels.

While only 20 percent of households that make $75,000 or more a year do not have access to the Internet, 56 percent of households in the $25,000-$34,999 bracket, 67 percent of households in the $15,000-$24,999 bracket, and 75 percent of households in the under-$15,000 bracket do not have access.

There are still major racial gaps. While 71 percent of Asian-Americans and 70 percent of white Americans use computers, 56 percent of African-Americans and 49 percent of Latinos use computers. While 60 percent of Asian-Americans and white Americans use the Internet, only 40 percent of African-Americans and 32 percent of Latinos use the Internet. Because of the remaining gaps, the report concluded, ''This is not the time to scale back federal investment.''

Although the same statistics are in the Commerce Department's report, the Bush administration says it is time to scale back investment. This makes it an open question how much of the nation the government truly wants or needs to be ''online.'' Some aspects of computer and Internet use, such as games and entertainment, are, of course, frivolous and need no federal help to level the usage field. Education is another matter.

The increased availability of computers in schools and libraries has certainly helped low-income districts gain periodic access to the Internet, but no one can pretend that is the same as wealthier students who can go online at home for research projects instead of waiting for a public computer to be freed up.

While 21 percent of students in households of less than $15,000 go online at home, 83 percent of students in households of $75,000 or higher use the Internet at home. Without further federal and state investments, any information and education gaps related to the Internet will not improve.

The Bush administration sees a nation half online and has declared its job done. Critics see a nation half online and see 140 million people about to be quietly left behind. In a nation where the message is clear that if you do not get on line, you will never get in line for tomorrow's jobs, not maintaining the bridge across the digital divide is an invitation to a spectacular collapse.

Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company

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