- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2000

President Clinton recently announced he would tour the 12 cities with the worst "digital divide" in the country to determine how much money the federal government should spend to bridge this gap between Internet use among economic classes and ethnic groups.
Never ones to miss an opportunity to demagogue, Mr. Clinton and his administration have blamed this situation on economic oppression and racism. But if the president and his allies would remove their ideological blinders, they would see the issue is a matter of choice, not economic status.
While it is true that fewer poor and minorities own computers with Internet access than the middle and upper classes, only specious reasoning leads to the conclusion that economic oppression is the main culprit for this phenomenon.
To Mr. Clinton and his supporters, correlation means causation and a coincidence must mean a conspiracy. But as anyone who has taken basic logic can tell you, this kind of reasoning will earn you an F. For this type of reasoning would lead one to believe that because truancy levels rise as ice cream consumption increases, ice cream consumption must cause truancy. Obviously this isn't the case.
This type of faulty reasoning fails to consider other factors that may contribute to truancy irrespective of increased ice cream consumption warmer weather, for instance. So it is with the digital divide.
For example, while not as many lower-income families own a computer, close analysis suggests economic constraints are not the primary cause. In fact, the Census Bureau's own data confirm that large percentages of families it defines as poor own many luxury items. For instance, 70 percent of poor households own a car, while 27 percent own two or more cars. Ninety-seven percent have a color television with nearly 50 percent owning two or more. Nearly 75 percent own a VCR, 64 percent own a microwave and more than 50 percent own a stereo system.
If the majority of America's "poor" can afford these niceties, why can't they afford a basic computer system?
The answer is, most can. Over the past several years, computer prices have dropped to levels comparable to many of the modern conveniences a majority of poor households already own.
For example, one major electronic store offers an $1,100 computer system for just $400 after rebates, while many discount computer stores sell comparable systems for as little as $300.
One major computer manufacturer even offers to lease new computer systems, with the price of Internet access included, for around $40 a month. Meanwhile, Internet access prices have dropped precipitously as well. For about $20 a month less than the average cable bill a family could be wired to the Internet. That price would be even lower if Washington would finally end the 3 percent federal excise tax on phone service, originally enacted to fund the Spanish-American War.
Then why don't more lower-income and minority families own a computer? Perhaps they've simply decided they don't need one. Analyst Tom Miller of Cyber Dialogue speculates that low- to moderate-income adults won't become actively interested in the Internet until it "resembles television." Perhaps they simply don't share President Clinton's view that without a computer, they can't compete and survive in today's society. Who knows? What does seem clear, though, is that the average family the government defines as "poor" could easily afford some type of computer system with Internet access if it wanted one.
Even if a family could not afford Internet access on their own, there are numerous alternatives. A 1998 survey found more than 83 percent of all public libraries have some type of Internet connection, while more than 89 percent of public schools are wired for the net.
The private sector is also actively involved in making technology available to lower-income families. Corporations ranging from AT&T; to Microsoft currently fund at least 40 different programs to expand access to technology. Private foundations such as the Kellog Foundation and the Markle Foundation also sponsor numerous programs meant to increase technological access. And the federal government already has at least four separate government programs spending billions of tax dollars to increase technological access to those without it.
To the extent a digital divide does exist in America, it does not exist due to economic factors, and it will not necessarily end with an infusion of tax dollars.
While not everyone in America has access to the Internet, access to the Internet to those who actually want it is increasing exponentially. While this may not be good news to politicians like Bill Clinton who would rather demagogue the issue for political points it is good news to those Americans who have decided they're ready to jump on to the Information Superhighway.

Eric V. Schlecht is director of congressional relations for the National Taxpayers Union.

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