Depth: Crossing the Digital Divide
With all the talk of pervasive, ubiquitous
computing, anytime/anywhere access, and personal networks and
digital assistants, it's easy to forget that a lot of people
in this country have no access to the Internet at all.
A recent study by Jupiter Communications projects
that whereas 93 percent of households with incomes over
$75,000 will be online in 2005, less than half of those with
incomes less than $15,000 will be. These low-income households
represent 19 percent of the U.S. population.
Without computers and Internet access, these
families are cut off not only from the dubious benefits of
24-hour shopping but also from employment and educational
opportunities that may help them change their low-income
In public schools, for example, teachers and
administrators have found that the digital divide also is
creating an educational divide. Although a student in the
suburbs (where more than 76 percent of families are online)
has access to the limitless resources on the Internet when
researching a report for school, a child in the inner city
(where less than 4 percent of families are online) most likely
does not. This difference in access translates into a massive
difference in the ability of children to succeed in school.
Exploiting the corporate surplus
In New York, a nonprofit organization called
Computers for Youth has come up with a novel solution to the
digital divide: It refurbishes castoff corporate PCs and gives
them to low-income families. Co-founder Elisabeth Stock came
up with the idea when, as a White House fellow, she helped
create a similar program, Computers for Learning, which
facilitated the donation of surplus computer equipment by
federal agencies to schools and educational nonprofits.
Stock and corporate attorney Dan Dolgin thought
that a similar model could work in the private sector. So,
with funding from companies such as Siemens and institutions
such as the Louis Calder Foundation, they acquired surplus PCs
from offices on Wall Street, loaded them with browsers and
educational software, and delivered them to Knowledge Is Power
(KIP), a magnet middle school in the South Bronx.
All the students at KIP--and their
teachers--were provided with home computers as well as
classroom computers. The results have been striking, both
educationally and socially. "With computers in their homes, a
whole new world has opened up for [the students]," says Josh
Zoya, technology coordinator at KIP.
For children of low-income families, living in
the city can be an isolating experience. They are often at
home alone at night while their parents are working. Via the
Internet, they can chat with their school friends who are in
similar situations. "This is the beginning of a movement¸They
don't have to be alone in those isolating situations," Zoya
The computers have made a dramatic difference
in the classroom as well. "It's incredible," says Rene
Harling, a seventh-grade teacher at KIP. "It's like they have
a newfound love of learning. They love sitting in front of
computers doing work."
Code and mentoring in San Francisco
With more than 50 percent of jobs in this
country based on computers--and most all of them requiring
some work with computers--the educational divide translates
directly into an employment divide, closing the circle that
traps generations in poverty.
On the other hand, E. David Ellington, founder
of NetNoir, a community, news,
and entertainment site for African Americans, and Dan Geiger,
president of Geiger Associates, a firm specializing in
business planning, fund raising, and organizational
development, saw significant opportunities for low-income
young adults in the new media industry. They founded OpNet to
prepare these young people to enter the Internet workforce.
Based in San Francisco, OpNet recruits young
people into its program, trains them in HTML and Web design,
places them in paid internships, and offers lifetime career
support and mentoring. The employer has the benefit of hiring
a prescreened, trained, and motivated employee, and the
trainee increases his or her annual income by approximately
165 percent, from $11,500 to $30,500.
Since it opened its doors in 1997, OpNet has
trained 130 young adults from low-income families. Eighty
percent have completed or are completing internships, 50
percent now are employed full-time in the Internet industry,
and 10 percent have pursued further education.
Tracy Johnson, a single mother of three, was
unemployed and homeless when she entered the OpNet program
last summer. After her training, OpNet placed her in a
four-month internship as an assistant Web designer at Miller
Freeman. After her internship, the company offered her a
full-time position as a Web developer at a starting salary of
$45,000 plus benefits.
Money changes everything
The Jupiter report, titled "Assessing the
Digital Divide," found that although ethnicity remains a
factor in access to the Internet, the overwhelming
differentiating factor is income. The ethnic gap is expected
to close significantly by 2005: Whereas now there are 60
percent more Caucasian than African American households
online, this gap is expected to shrink by two-thirds, with
only 18 percent more Caucasian than African American
The generation gap also is expected to narrow.
Internet access by kids and seniors is expected to grow from
32 percent to 62 percent and from 16 percent to 48 percent,
respectively. Meanwhile, low-income households online are
expected to increase from 15 percent to 45 percent.
In a society and an era so focused on money and
success, it is perhaps not surprising that the have-nots among
us tend not to have Internet access. But as that access
becomes key not only to education, employment, and commerce
but also to participation in civic and social life, we are
fortunate that some people are taking steps to bridge the gap.
also contributed to this report.