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Federal tech role urged

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By Todd Cohen

While a growing number of Americans use computers and the Internet, many others do not because of income, race, ethnicity, geography or disability, and federal support is critical to closing those gaps, a new report says.

“Government must take steps to create policies and programs that provide people in underserved communities with the opportunity to gain access to technology,” says the report, “Bringing a National Online: The Importance of Federal Leadership.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Foundation and the Benton Foundation released the report in the face of moves by the Bush Administration to end two federal programs designed to give underserved communities access to computers, the Internet and technology skills.

The Senate is expected to vote to keep both programs at their current levels at least, although their fate in the House is not clear, says Brian Komar, director of strategic affairs for the Leadership Conference.

A separate report last February by the U.S. Department of Commerce found “rapidly growing use of new information technologies across numerous demographic groups and geographic regions,” the new report says, showing that “federal leadership to close the digital divide and create digital opportunity is beginning to pay off.”

The federal Technology Opportunities Program has awarded $192.5 million in matching grants to spur innovative uses of technology, while the federal Community Technology Centers program has awarded $107.5 million in matching grants to support technology centers. The two programs – both of which focus mainly on underserved communities — have attracted an additional $268 million and $92.5 million, respectively, from public and private sources.

Still, the Bush administration finds both programs are “no longer necessary and that the private sector rather than government should be responsible” for closing the so-called “digital divide,” the new report says.

Despite the gains the government reported in February, the new report says, big gaps remain.

“Significant divides still exist between high and low income households, among different racial groups, for people with disabilities, as well as between northern and southern states, and rural and urban households,” the new report says. “For people in these communities, the enormous social, civic, educational and economic opportunities offered by rapid advances in information technology remain out of reach.”

While eight in 10 of the poorest school-aged children and nearly nine in 10 of the wealthiest use computers in school, for example, only one in three of the poorest children use computers at home, compared to more than nine in 10 of the wealthiest, the report says.

Children in the poorest families also use the Internet at roughly half the rate at which the wealthiest children use it, the report says.

And nearly seven in 10 whites, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders use the Internet, compared to only three in 10 blacks and only slightly more Hispanics.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia are lagging in their adoption of technology, the report says, while blacks and Hispanics in rural areas, especially Spanish-speaking Hispanics, trail Asian Americans and whites in their use of technology, and workers in low-skill jobs are not online “because they don’t use the tools at work and can’t afford them at home.”

“This is not the time to scale back federal investment,” the report says. “Continued federal leadership is plainly needed to promote public and private collaborations to bring information age tools and training to the communities that can most benefit from them.”

Last month, the Leadership Conference launched an initiative, digitalempowerment.org, to persuade the federal government to support access to and use of technology by underserved communities. More than 100 organizations have endorsed the effort, Komar says.

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