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"Race, Poverty and the Digital Divide,"

by Brian Komar January/February 2003 issue of Poverty & Race

The importance this nation places on advancing digital opportunity for all will go a long way in determining the strength and success of our national economy, the quality of public education, and ultimately our ability to compete in the global economy of the 21st Century.

Recognizing that no one should be left behind in the New Economy, both the executive and legislative branches, working in bipartisan fashion, have played important leadership roles over the last decade in bridging the knowledge gap between the "information haves" and the "information have-nots" -- what some refer to as the digital divide.

This leadership has taken many forms. In the public policy arena, bipartisan majorities have enacted community technology programs while informational summits have merged the efforts of government, industry, and public interest groups working to bridge the digital divide. This leadership has helped to accelerate the adoption of 21st century literacy skills among economically and geographically distressed and otherwise underserved communities.

Unfortunately, it has become clear that the Bush Administration is abandoning the federal government’s decade-long leadership in bridging the digital divide. After a year of public speculation over whether the White House was committed to expanding information age opportunity to all communities, the Administration has finally broken its silence, and the news is not good.

In February 2002, the Department of Commerce released its latest report examining Americans' use of computers and the Internet. This report, part of an on-going Department series known as Falling Through the Net, was re-titled, A Nation Online, and clearly indicates a new federal approach. Once the national benchmark for measuring the digital divide, the most recent report takes the position that the digital divide is no longer a major concern--a position belied by the facts.

Celebrating Americans' increased access, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans stated, "I am heartened by this report's findings that all groups of individuals are using [computer and Internet] technologies in increasingly greater numbers."

While some of the data clearly show that there are increasing numbers of Americans connected to the Internet and computers, the same data also show how specific segments of society--particularly underserved communities--continue to lag behind and that the digital divide remains a persistent problem.

Significant divides still exist between high- and low-income households, among different racial groups, between Northern and Southern states, and rural and urban households. For people in these communities, the enormous social, civic, educational, and economic opportunities offered by rapid advances in information technology remain out of reach.

For example, large gaps in computer and Internet use remain between low-income and high-income consumers. Seventy-five percent of people who live in households with annual income less than $15,000 and 66% of those in households with incomes between $15,000 and $35,000 are not yet using the Internet. In contrast, 67.3% of Americans making $50,000-$75,000/year and 78.9% of people making over $75,000/year use the Internet.

In September 2001, computer use rates were highest for Asian American/Pacific Islanders (71.2%) and Whites (70%). Among Blacks, 55.7% were computer users. Less than half of Hispanics (48.8%) were computer users. During the same year, Internet use among Whites and Asian American/Pacific Islanders hovered around 68%, while Internet use rates for Blacks (30%) and Hispanics (32%) trailed way behind.

There are also significant differences in online use among children of different races and ethnicities. School-only and home use rates are significantly lower for Hispanic and Black children, resulting in overall use rates of 47.8% and 52.3%, respectively. Asian American and Pacific Islander and White children, by contrast, are far more likely to use the Internet either at home only, or at home and school, with use rates of 79.4% and 79.7%, respectively.

After releasing the report signifying a change in policy, the Bush Administration then began implementing this policy shift by proposing to eliminate two critically important community technology programs in the Administration’s 2003 budget:
  • The Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) administered by the Department of Commerce; and
  • The Community Technology Center (CTC) initiative, a competitive grant program administered by the Department of Education.

TOP provides matching grants to bring the benefits of innovative digital network technologies to underserved communities across the United States and the Community Technology Center initiative provides matching grants to create centers where people get free or low-cost access to computers and computer-related technology and the skills to use them.

Eliminating these two programs will have a devastating impact on programs that assist low-income, rural, and other disadvantaged groups share in the benefits of information technology.

For example:
  • The National Urban League received a TOP grant to bring access to the national information infrastructure to community residents and community-based organizations in four targeted communities -- Baltimore, Maryland; Binghamton, New York; Roxbury, Massachusetts; and Newark, New Jersey.
  • ASPIRA Association, Inc. received a CTC grant to replicate their community technology center model, building four new centers in the mostly Latino Empowerment Zone neighborhoods of Chicago, Philadelphia, Bridgeport (Connecticut), and Carolina (Puerto Rico).
  • The State of Alaska’s Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments received a TOP grant to help support efforts to link eleven isolated Alaskan villages to each other and to the world, using a low-cost satellite communications network.

The CTC program to date has awarded 227 grants based on $107.5 million in allocations from Congress, and attracted an additional $92.5 million in financial support from public and private funding sources.

Through 2001, TOP awarded 530 grants representing $192.5 million in investment, in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which in turn has attracted an additional $268 million in public and private support.

Since their inception, both programs enjoyed considerable bipartisan support. As recently as 2001, Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI) wrote a letter to OMB Director Mitch Daniels, Jr., noting, "I am a dedicated fiscal conservative…[H]owever, the goal of using technology to improve the lives of all Americans, and to better prepare all of our youth for tomorrow must be neither overlooked nor underfunded. Unfortunately, many moderate supporters have backed away from the programs as the Bush Administration’s intentions have been made clear.

The Digital Empowerment Campaign

Last Spring, over 110 national civil rights, education, religious, and other organizations launched the Digital Empowerment Campaign, a nationwide grassroots effort to preserve and strengthen TOP and CTC.

At a Capitol Hill press conference launching the campaign, sponsored by Sens. Max Cleland (D-GA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the group that spearheaded the campaign, said: “Now more than ever, federal leadership is crucial to ensure that urban, rural, and Indian tribal land residents have access to technology and can acquire the high-tech job skills necessary to compete in the 21st Century economy. The TOP and CTC programs invest in more than just technology; they invest in communities. And their returns, by any measure, have been spectacular.”

The Digital Empowerment Campaign also used an interactive website, www.digitalempowerment.org, to mobilize support for the campaign. The site generated thousands of letters to Congress and also contained state-by-state breakdowns of federal support, along with real-life testimonials from beneficiaries of these programs.

Last July, the Benton Foundation and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund released a report, Bringing a Nation Online: The Importance of Federal Leadership, which examined the Department of Commerce data. The report underscored that, despite these gains, significant divide remains based on income, race and ethnicity, geography, and disability. The report also examined the success of the TOP and CTC programs in bridging the significant technology gaps that remain along these lines.

Despite the decrease in moderate Republican support, TOP and CTC continue to enjoy the broad support of the Democratic caucus, including endorsements from the New Democrat Coalition, a group of 74 centrist, pro-growth members of the House of Representatives working to find mainstream, bipartisan solutions to our nation's problems, as well as from the more progressive Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific Caucuses.

In last year’s Democratic-controlled Senate, the Appropriations Committee approved the bill that funds the CTC program and provided CTC $32.5 million - the same amount it received last year. The Committee also approved the bill that funds TOP – providing $15.5 million, also the amount the program received last year.

Before leaving town, the House and Senate each passed a short-term continuing resolution that includes continued funding for TOP and CTC at last year’s level through early January when the programs’ ultimate fate will be determined. The change in Senate control stemming from the 2002 elections, a tight fiscal environment, and the Administration’s opposition portend trouble for the programs.

While it is too early to say for certain, it seems likely that we are witnessing the end of two short-lived, but extremely successful programs that provide people in underserved communities with the opportunity to gain access to and utilization of information technology. In doing so, we are jeopardizing the opportunity to truly be a nation online.

Notes:

Brian Komar(Komar@CivilRights.org) is Director of Strategic Affairs at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s progressive coalition for equal opportunity and justice. For more information, visit www.CivilRights.org, where Bringing a Nation Online is available.

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