IF COMPUTER literacy is becoming synonymous with general literacy, then the Census Bureau's latest report on computer use in the United States contains some sobering information.
While ownership of home computers doubled between 1984 and 1989 and overall use of computers increased substantially, the computing gap between whites and blacks, and between low-income and high-income Americans of all races, remains a major issue.
While computers haven't penetrated the home market as quickly as other high-tech appliances such as videocassette recorders, growth has been steady.
Overall, the Census report shows that the proportion of households with computers increased from 8 percent in 1984 to 15 percent in 1989.
The proportion today is undoubtedly higher. Large manufacturers such as IBM have cut their prices over the past 18 months and are now putting their machines in department stores and other mass outlets right next to the TVs, VCRs and boom boxes.
There's also no question that young people are more familiar with computers than are their parents. Some 46 percent of those under 18 reported using computers in 1989, compared with only 28 percent of adults.
The figures show that upper income white children are far more likely to be exposed to computers in home and school than are black or Hispanic youngsters.
White parents are more likely to be computer users, and they're more likely to be able to provide computers at home, where students can learn and practice the computer skills that will be so valuable in college and in the workplace.
Since relatively few low-income households can afford computers, the survey underscores the need for school systems to provide students with access to the technology that will be a key to personal and financial success as we head toward the 21st century. Unfortunately, the gap extends to the classroom, too.
The Census Bureau said that 22 percent of blacks reported using computers at home or work in 1989, compared with 34 percent of whites.
This is hardly surprising, given a higher concentration of whites in white collar jobs -- particularly in the finance, insurance and real estate industries, where computer usage is highest.
The disparity also showed up in the home. Only 11 percent of black children and 10 percent of Hispanic youngsters lived in homes with computers, compared with 27 percent of white children.
Once again, this should surprise no one. While the Census Bureau's figures are couched in terms of race, what they're really talking about is income.
True, computers now cost only half of what they did five years ago. But entry-level PC systems, which generally run $1,000 to $2,000, are still big ticket items for most Americans.
According to the Census Bureau's 1989 income survey, the median household income of black families was less than 60 percent of white household income.
Buying an average home computer system would have required between 7 and 10 percent of the average black household's $18,083 income in 1989. Few families with incomes of $18,000 have that kind of disposable cash after paying for housing, food and clothing.
If black youngsters are to gain the computer skills they need, it's up to the schools to help them. The numbers are more encouraging here, but still troubling.
The Census Bureau reported that 35 percent of black students used computers in school, compared with 48 percent of white students. While the gap isn't as large as it is for home computer ownership, it's still significant.
Low-income black students are concentrated in urban school systems that are hard-pressed to pay for teachers, books and supplies, let alone computer systems.
This is particularly painful because studies are beginning to show that well-designed computer curriculums, such as IBM's Writing to Read program, can have a positive impact on disadvantaged students' educational progress.
Likewise, the very availability of computers for such mundane tasks as word processing and writing resumes can have a big impact on students' lives.
More important, basic computer skills are becoming a requisite for the white-collar workplace. In 1989, the Census Bureau reported, 37 percent of employed adults used computers at work. In insurance, finance and real estate jobs, 71 percent used computers.
It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to conclude that a knowledge of computers will help a young person land a job today -- and succeed once he's employed.
The problem is that computers are big-ticket items for schools, too. Even with steep educational discounts, the price of setting up a lab with 30 computers can be $50,000 or more. Teacher training, software, technical support and maintenance are ongoing costs that many school systems say they can't afford.
However, to succeed in college or even in many entry-level jobs that don't require a college degree, today's young people will need at least some basic computing skills. Perhaps the question isn't whether we can afford to make these skills available to all students, but whether we can afford not to.