Contrary to a recent federal report that showed substantial gains in computer and internet access by Americans, some civil liberties advocates say the digital divide still exists and federal leadership is crucial to closing the gap.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund and the Benton Foundation, with support from the Ford Foundation, issued a report July 11 called “Bringing a Nation Online: The Importance of Federal Leadership.”

The report gives state-by-state accounts of how some federal grant programs have helped improve access to technology for all Americans, including schoolchildren. It argues there is a continued need for these programs and criticizes the Bush Administration’s plans to eliminate them.

The report is a reaction to data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce earlier this year in a report called “A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet.”

In that report, the administration pointed to a trend that showed internet use growing at a faster rate among the poor and minorities and in rural areas. Emboldened by the survey, officials declared that the digital divide was closing and expensive government programs aimed at closing the gap no longer were needed.

Despite these gains, the authors of “Bringing a Nation Online” found a significant divide remains based on income, race and ethnicity, geography, and disability—meaning many Americans have yet to see the benefit of the internet.

For example, the report shows that 68 percent of white and Asian Americans use the internet, compared to 30 percent of black Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics. Also, the report finds that the disabled use computers and the internet half as often as other Americans.

“The Commerce Department’s data should be used to guide and strengthen federal programs that bridge the opportunity divide, not as an excuse to eliminate them as the Bush Administration has proposed,” said Wade Henderson, counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.

Two technology programs in particular—the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) and the Education Department’s Community Technology Centers (CTC) program—are slated for elimination in the Bush Administration’s fiscal 2003 budget, despite their reported accomplishments.

The report profiles 44 TOP and CTC projects in 25 states that, individually and collectively, demonstrate the federal government’s success in assisting a wide range of Americans gain access to technology, enhance economic opportunity, and build community services.

“The good news is that the federal government has jump-started hundreds of community technology centers, sparking innovation in many rural and low-income neighborhoods,” Benton Foundation President Andrea L. Taylor said. “However, scuttling programs that offer new approaches to human activity that could strengthen our democracy undercuts community efforts to provide economic opportunity for all Americans.”

Neither Commerce Department nor White House officials were available for comment before press time.

In addition, the nation’s schools are closing the gap for minority students who do not have computer access at home, the report found. Hispanic and black children—with low computer-use rates at home—have equitable access when compared with white, Asian, and Pacific Island children at school.

“The availability of school computers makes overall computer use rates among children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds comparable,” the report stated. As of September 2001, almost 90 percent of school-aged children used computers and 58.5 percent used the internet, mainly to complete school work.

But some educators worry that students who don’t have computers at home are at a disadvantage when compared with students who do have home access.

To date, TOP has awarded 530 grants in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, totaling $192.5 million and leveraging $268 million in local matching funds. The CTC program has awarded 227 grants based on a $107.5 million allocation from Congress that has leveraged $92.5 million in non-federal matching funds.


Benton Foundation

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund

“Bringing a Nation Online: The Importance of Federal Leadership”

U.S. Department of Commerce

“A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet”