Wednesday, March 30, 2005

It's time to tap the full potential of the Internet for low-income New Yorkers

It's a technology which yields dividends for education, health, employment, and community life. It's a tool for empowerment, especially for the unemployed, single parents, elderly, physically disabled, and others with limited mobility. Equality of opportunity depends on it.

Yes, it’s the telephone.

But of course the Internet is all these things as well (and much more). And a comparison of these two technologies , each revolutionary in its day , reveals much about just how far the Internet has to go to realize it’s full potential for the neediest among us.

A quarter of a century after the telephone’s invention in 1878, the technology was still a rarity in the American home. By contrast the Internet, now at a similar stage in its lifespan, has already been adopted by over 70% of the nation’s households, with many more able to connect in school and at work. But for low-income families the latest data show still less than half have access from anywhere, and as little as 30% are able to connect from home.

Our society now accepts a telephone as a basic necessity for people of all income levels. But the Internet is surely just as vital , and in fact it has the potential to dwarf Alexander Bell’s invention as a tool for low-income families. The stakes are so high that even the current comparatively rapid rate of Internet adoption is simply not fast enough.

When it comes to the question of where low-income families should be able to connect, one option stands above all the rest: the home. Many users naturally aren’t comfortable looking up information on sensitive personal finance or health issues at public terminals. And as any parent knows, sometimes the only chance to go online is late at night after the kids are asleep.

Middle- and upper-income New Yorkers are dropping home dial-up Internet service in droves in favor of broadband connections through cable modems and DSL. Shouldn’t low-income families have the same opportunity? A recent article in Business Week answered that question with a definitive “yes”, citing evidence that users with a high-speed connection, able to avoid the frustration and anxiety of waiting for 56K downloads, are five times more likely to complete a transaction on-line.

But while the price of new computers has been plummeting , even name-brand systems can now be found for around $500 , the price of broadband access, at $40 per month and up, remains a significant barrier to families living on limited incomes.

Twelve states and municipalities, ranging from California to Kentucky, have implemented an ingeniously simple solution to this problem. They now mandate or encourage that all new affordable housing be built with high-speed wiring in each apartment. Depending on the networking technology employed, this lowers the cost of broadband Internet access to just $10 per family. Installation of the wiring is paid for not by government, but by the private builders, who already receive hefty subsidies in the form of tax-credits and low-interest loans for their work, benefits which far outweigh the estimated 0.1% which installation of high-speed wiring adds to the cost of new construction. New York’s City and State housing finance agencies should quickly follow the lead of other forward-thinking states in implementing a similar policy.

But assuring that low-income families have high-speed Internet access is only half the battle , in fact, it may be less than half. We take the telephone for granted today as an essential tool for low-income people because employers, health care providers, government agencies, and retailers all long-ago reinvented their operations to adapt to this technology. In short, a telephone as a piece of hardware is only empowering because of who’s on the other end of the line (be they human or computer) and what the connection with them allows a user to accomplish.

That’s why it’s essential that the public, private, and non-profit sectors now reinvent themselves again to tap the power of the Internet as a tool for low-income families. Fully realized, the net will help low-income families to leap over social and geographic barriers. The possibilities are almost endless, and to date we’ve only barely scratched the surface.

Typical of government websites today, New York City’s NYC.gov offers transactional capabilities for homeowners, small businesses, and landlords , but provides little more than the equivalent of on-line brochures for services tailored to low-income residents. A few other localities, however, have pointed the way forward: The City of Portland allows residents to search on-line for home-based childcare providers in their neighborhood, a web-based solution which is now getting more use than the City’s old off-line information service. And the State of Kentucky offers an on-line tool to allow low-income residents to connect to available subsidized housing options in any county of the state.

These and many other innovative resources are part of a website called The Beehive, which offers a vast array of tools and information designed to help empower low-income families (the site is produced by the non-profit organization I work for, One Economy). The Beehive also offers multi-lingual on-line training in financial literacy, health issues, immigration matters, and much more.

Like government, private industry has far to go in opening its doors to low-income users on-line. But here again a few innovators point the way. Sylvan Learning Systems, whose core business is remedial and enrichment training for students K-12, has launched an on-line version of its tutoring program called eSylvan. In New York and several other cities the company is making a concerted effort to enroll low-income students in the on-line program, allowing them to overcome the barriers of long trips to bricks-and-mortal Sylvan centers in wealthier areas.

Surveys of low-income adults show their greatest interest in going on-line is not to use chat rooms or download music , it’s to look for a job. And online job directories are only the beginning. Web-based workforce development has the potential to help low-income users choose a career, prepare for a job interview, create a resume, and more. The Chicago-based non-profit Women Employed has developed an on-line career coach which leads the way in this area. New Yorkers deserve the same.

Indeed it may be as a tool for promoting employment that on-line access proves most indispensable for the poor. If so, the I-Internet would only be following the path of the telephone, which in 1987 was ruled by the Montana Supreme Court to be a necessity for gaining employment. A similar court ruling today on the Internet may be unlikely, but our city would be wise to nonetheless recognize this medium as an indispensable tool for low-income New Yorkers. And we should move rapidly to tap its full transformative potential.

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