African-Americans Are Being Left Behind in the Information Age, by Council Nedd

A 1998 Vanderbilt University study found that 73% of white high school and college students have a computer in their home, yet only 33% of their black peers do. 28% of white Americans with household incomes of less than $40,000 annually have home computers, compared with 13% of African-Americans. 13% of white households with income under $40,000 use the Internet, compared to 8% of African-American households. And white lower-income households that do access the Internet do so more frequently: When whites and blacks from households making under $40,000 were asked if they’d visited the World Wide Web in the past month, more than three times as many whites as blacks said yes.

A major U.S. Commerce Department report found similar results. The Commerce Department found that 40% of all white households have computers, compared to 19.3% for African-Americans and 19.4% for Hispanics. At incomes higher than $75,000, the Commerce Department found, 76.3% of white households owned computers, compared to 64.1% of black households.

African-Americans cannot afford to be left behind in the information age.

What can be done?

First, we can support government policies that make the Internet more accessible. For instance, AT&T recently purchased the national TV cable company TCI with the intention of offering Internet service through TV cable. This would be a boon to black families, who currently are more likely to have cable service than Internet access. Unfortunately, some big business interests – like the Internet service America Online – are attempting to block AT&T’s action, and the matter was brought before a Senate committee on April 13 for investigation. Policymakers should be told that AT&T should be allowed to offer Internet service through TV cables.

Second, we need to teach our kids about the Internet and monitor their use of it, to make sure the time they spend online is positive and productive. Schools without computers and Internet access can get online more cheaply than they might think, as many businesses routinely throw away or send to storage computers that are just a couple of years old. These businesses could be convinced to donate them to a school in return for a tax deduction.

Third, we can keep Internet taxes low to help lower-income families pay for access. The Internet Tax Freedom Act, approved by Congress after an uphill fight by Representative Chris Cox (R-CA), bans new taxes on the Internet for three years. This could be extended.

Fourth, we need to build and maintain intact families. The Department of Commerce report found that one of the most significant factors influencing children’s access to the Internet is family structure. Commerce found that households composed of married couples with children are approximately twice as likely to own computers and have Internet access (57.2% and 29.4% respectively) as are single-headed households headed by a male (30.5% and 14%) or a female (25% and 9.2%).

Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute reports that, by next year, 60% of all U.S. jobs will require technical skills and that – although African-Americans make up 12% of the U.S. workforce – only 4% of the jobs in the lucrative computer science field are held by blacks. The computer industry has 200,000 unfilled jobs now and a million new computer jobs will need filling by 2006.

Computer jobs are, for the most part, lucrative and prestigious positions. As African-Americans, we should position ourselves to take our share of them, and we should seize the other educational, career and recreational benefits the information age makes possible.

(Council Nedd is a member of Project 21 and the director of government affairs for Citizens Against Government Waste.)

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