The disparity between whites and black and Hispanic Americans who own computers and use the internet is growing significantly toward a “racial ravine,” in some cases even after accounting for differences in income, the federal government reported July 8. The government’s report underscores how internet access in public schools is crucial to bridging the gap between the technology “haves” and “have nots.”

The Commerce Department’s third “Falling Through the Net” survey, published by the department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, shows dramatic gains in the number of Americans embracing technology. But it also cites money, education, and whether a person lives in an urban area as key factors affecting how likely they are to use those high-tech tools.

“The ‘net’ is increasingly becoming part of our national heritage—for some people,” said Larry Irving, a Commerce Department undersecretary and President Clinton’s top telecommunications adviser. Those least likely to use high-tech tools “would be low-income blacks or Hispanics in a rural community,” he said.

Most troubling for government experts were indications that these disparities can’t be blamed solely on differences in income. Among families earning $15,000 to $35,000, for example, more than 33 percent of whites owned computers, but only 19 percent of blacks did—and that gap has widened nearly 62 percent since 1994, despite plunging computer prices.

“Even when holding income constant, there is still a yawning divide among different races and origins,” the report said, warning of a society in which “the ‘haves’ have only become more information-rich…while the ‘have-nots’ are lagging even further behind.”

But the government survey also found, predictably, that as income rises, the likelihood of computer ownership and internet use also rises. Families with incomes above $75,000 were more than five times as likely to own a computer at home and 10 times more likely to have internet access than families who earned less than $10,000.

And the gaps in computer ownership and internet use narrowed between white families and blacks and Hispanics earning more than $50,000.

“There is a way to buy your way out,” said Irving, adding that falling computer prices will continue to help. “Above $75,000, there is almost no gap between blacks and whites.”

The report, the third such survey by the government since 1995, did not suggest specific ways to encourage internet use or computer ownership, except to recommend that public facilities such as schools, libraries, and community centers continue to provide online access.

Some industry experts suggested that minorities might find computers and the internet difficult to learn, or at least consider the web a medium whose benefits haven’t been sufficiently explained.

“I really don’t think the advantage of being online has been instilled in them,” said Trevor Farrington, a director at the Massachusetts-based African American Internetwork, a web site aimed at blacks. “I really don’t think they understand it. They think it’s too technical, (but) it’s as easy to use as TV and it’s better. Once they understand that, it should grow.”

That’s where using the technology in public school classrooms can help, according to the study.

Other key findings in the report:

• About 47 percent of all whites own computers, but fewer than half as many blacks do. About 26 percent of Hispanics own computers, but fully 55 percent of Asians do. Asian families also are most likely to have internet access, with 36 percent online.

• A child in a low-income white family is three times more likely to have internet access than a child in an economically comparable black family and four times more likely than a child in a comparable Hispanic family.

• People with college degrees are more than eight times more likely to own a computer and 16 times more likely to have internet access than people with elementary school educations.

“Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide”

http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ digitaldivide