Studies reveal mixed news on Hispanic digital divide

Hispanic Business Journal of Illinois

There is good and bad news when it comes to Hispanic computer ownership and Internet access, a 1999 U.S. Commerce Department survey reports.

While Hispanic computer ownership doubled between 1994 and 1998, Hispanic households were still half as likely to own a computer as were white households and 2.5 times less likely to have access to the Internet.

The 1999 study, “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide,” showed that, even when controlled for income, both Hispanic computer ownership and Internet access from home lagged behind that for both whites and Asians. The ownership and access figures for Hispanics, however, were slightly better than those for blacks.

Some observers have criticized the study for being presented as new data when it is, in fact, two years old. With computer prices approaching the cost of a television or VCR and free Internet services operating nationwide, they say, the so-called “digital divide” has shrunk remarkably in the time since the Commerce Department survey was conducted.

Adam Clayton Powell III of the Freedom Forum has pointed out what he sees as a flaw in the Commerce Department survey — it did not measure Internet access outside the home. Powell points to a 1999 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which showed that 62 percent of employed Americans go online through their jobs, and 75 percent of students go online from their schools, percentages far greater than at-home statistics for all people regardless of race or income.

Therefore, Powell concludes, once computer and Internet access outside the home is taken into account, the gap is virtually nonexistent.

However, other experts believe that most meaningful Internet experiences can only take place in the home. As Katie Hafner reported in The New York Times: “Experts say that the only way to fully appreciate the Web is to experience it and that the most useful experience, unfettered by the constraints of an institutional setting, comes with using the Internet from home.”

Another survey released in March and conducted by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government showed that at higher income levels the racial gap in computer ownership and Internet access virtually disappears.

The NPR survey also showed that while a gap in computer ownership and Internet access existed between whites and minorities at the lowest income levels, there was no gap in similarly-priced home electronics, like TVs, VCRs, and home stereos.

Contention over the existence and extent of the digital divide aside, there is little debate about the role computer ownership and Internet access will play in the future for all Americans, including Hispanics.

This is why some organizations are taking a proactive approach in ensuring that all people — especially children — have access to the computer technologies that will shape our future. For example, AT&T has offered a summer cyber-camp of sorts, free of charge, to selected Chicago-area children.

This year’s Cyber Navigators Camp will give some 35 ten- to 12-year-old children the opportunity to participate in a program exposing them to advanced computer technology, hands-on science activities, field trips and special speakers.

Designed for youths who do not have adequate access to computer technology, “The cyber skills these students acquire will be an important stepping stone to their overall success in school and as lifelong learners,” said Agnes Hicks, AT&T community relations manager.

The camp opened in June at El Valor’s Computer Technology Center, 1924 W. 21st St., in Chicago. Children were recruited from families already being served by El Valor and from other community-based organizations, churches and schools. The students who were selected had to write a 200-word essay in English or Spanish about themselves and their community.

“The application process was necessary because we knew the response to this program would be tremendous,” said Rolando Madrid, El Valor coordinator of school age programs. “The [camp] helps fill a great need in our community to engage youth who might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn about technology in such a hands-on environment.”

In addition to learning about computers and the Internet, the children will also learn how to interpret science data and work together to complete a science project. Field trips to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the Shedd Aquarium and Telemundo TV will keep the kids from getting cabin fever.

While the camp only runs for six weeks, the children will have access to El Valor’s computer learning center even after the program ends.

With computer prices inching ever lower and lower and these types of efforts to increase computer and Internet access on the rise, perhaps the digital divide among Hispanics — whatever its breadth — will soon fade into memory.

To read the Commerce Department report in full or find out more about the digital divide, visit www.digitaldivide.gov.