Despite the much-heralded ability of computers and the Internet to unite and empower an ever-increasing number of people, this technology has also created a new dividing line across America - between information "haves" and "have-nots."
Indeed, the most recent US Census data, as well as a number of private studies, confirm that a disproportionate share of poor Americans do not have home computers or access to the Internet. In our increasingly information-based society, this situation has ominous implications for millions of low-income families.
One study conducted by Market Intelligence, a California research group, reported that 80 percent of households with incomes over $100,000 own personal computers, while personal computers can be found in only 25 percent of households with income under $30,000.
US Census data show that the average income for a family with a computer is nearly twice that of households without computers.
A recent study by the Center for Civic Networking shows that computer use at work or school is a strong gauge of home computer ownership. Of all home computer owners, 72 percent also use computers at work or at school. Those least likely to have computer experience at work or school - the poor - are least likely to own a home computer.
The separation of the poor from those with the wealth and education to command technology's power hampers prospects for the social and economic advancement of the disadvantaged. Computers and networked information increasingly pervade American life and involve everything from interpersonal communication to banking to shopping to entertainment to civic involvement.
To those with technological access, social and economic opportunities flow. Information "have-nots" are all but immobilized in the society and economy of the future.
The public and private responses to information inequities have been inadequate. For example, the federal Title I program, designed to aid poorer schools with computers and programs, hasn't been able to level the technological playing field. A 1997 report by the Educational Testing Service showed the national ratio of students per classroom computer is 10 to 1. In schools with 90 percent or more low-income minority students, the ratio is about 30 to 1. At schools with low-income enrollments of between 24 and 49 percent, the ratio is 22 to 1. The US Department of Education recommends a ratio of 5 to 1.
Efforts to get more children on line received a serious setback last month when the Federal Communications Commission announced that federal subsidies for low-cost Internet service in schools and libraries would be cut.
Part of the promise of advanced information technology is that it offers a means for self-betterment to the poor; networked information, including e-mail, brings real social and economic value. But to fulfill this promise, we must close America's information gap. A new national policy should be developed that includes government and market incentives to increase home computer ownership among poor families, promote public-access computer and Internet services, and increase computer literacy.
To facilitate home computer ownership, for example, policymakers should accelerate the federal depreciation on personal computers to encourage quicker turnover of computers and create a new market of inexpensive, used equipment for the poor. A one-time federal tax credit for purchasing a home computer or network service would stimulate ownership.
There are a number of private organizations, like CapAccess, a Washington D.C.-based group, that provide free access to Internet e-mail in public schools. Free e-mail can encourage kids to broaden their personal networks for education and later, employment prospects. And despite the reduced federal commitment, both MCI and AT&T recently announced they would offer subsidized Internet access to the poor. The Clinton administration should support a new private initiative, modeled on the successful Welfare-to-Work Partnership, that encourages private companies to offer free or low-cost computer and Internet access and training to the poor.
Access to computers and the Internet, without adequate training, is of limited benefit. Working with the private sector, localities can supplement the often-stretched resources of public schools with innovative literacy programs including apprenticeships and peer mentoring. In addition to adult education programs, the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) - designed to help offset employers' training costs for long-term welfare recipients and displaced workers - can be a critical computer literacy tool for adults. The administration and Congress should emphasize this utilization of the credit to employers, and support renewal of WOTC, which, unfortunately, expired June 30.
The personal computer has often been called "The Great Equalizer." By utilizing networks, computers have broken traditional monopolies on information, disrupted hierarchies, and in so doing, empowered the masses.
But so long as inequities in access to computers and the Internet between rich and poor persist in this information-age, technology's promise will remain unfulfilled and ours will remain a two-tiered society. Only by offering every American the knowledge and skills necessary for social and economic betterment will computers earn the mantle of The Great Equalizer. And only then can our startling technological advances be in truth called "progress."
* Michael Holtzman is chairman of The Next Generation Institute, a virtual think-tank dedicated to issues of importance to younger Americans. Its website is www.nextgenerationinst.com/