Disappearing Divide

The poor get connected


In response to a new survey gauging Americans' online activity between 1997 and 2001, the pressure group Children's Partnership cited a continuing digital divide. On one side, said the partnership in a February report, are the connected, "mostly rich whites"; on the other, the unconnected, poor minorities and people with disabilities.

Those who could benefit most from Internet job opportunities, the group complained, "are the least likely to be online." It urged members to lobby Congress and local legislatures to invest more money in "community technology" to redress this imbalance.

Many others, drawing on the same report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, arrived at a different conclusion. Washington Post economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson declared the idea of a static digital divide "largely fiction." Thanks to falling computer and online access prices and diminishing skill requirements, the digital divide has been shrinking without government intervention.

As of September 2001, 56 percent of Americans used the Internet and 66 percent used computers. The Commerce Department found that participation was increasing, "regardless of income, education, race, ethnicity or gender," at a rate of 2 million new surfers every month. Low-income users grew at twice the rate of high-income users, with families headed by single mothers among the most likely to go online.

As with televisions and refrigerators, the online gap between rich and poor appears to be closing quickly as the technology becomes commonplace.