Racial divide on Net widens

Minorities much less likely to have access at home, work, school

Comprehensive U.S. study

Gap in computer use correlates to levels of income, education


WASHINGTON -- A new federal survey shows that while minority groups are increasingly gaining access to computers and the Internet, the racial divide remains stark, with blacks and Hispanics less than half as likely as whites to explore the Net from home, work or school.

The study, the third and most comprehensive to be conducted by the Commerce Department over the past three years, reinforces the fear that minority groups are increasingly at a disadvantage in competing for the hottest entry-level jobs in the country: those that require a knowledge of computers and comfort in navigating the Internet.

But the study also contained some new findings that add considerable complexity to the debate about how race, income level and location affect access to the technology explosion of the 1990s. These are among the findings:

Among families earning $15,000 to $35,000 per year, more than 32 percent of whites owned computers but only 19 percent of blacks and Hispanics at comparable income levels had computers at home. That gap widened from 8 percentage points five years ago, even as the price of entry-level personal computers plunged.

Children in single-parent households have far less access to computers and the Internet than those in two-parent households. A child in a two-parent white household is nearly twice as likely to have Internet access as a child in a one-parent white household; the disparity is even greater between single-parent and two-parent black households.

The highest penetration of computers in households in the United States can be found in largely rural, cold-weather states, many of which have pockets of high-technology jobs. The lowest penetration is in Southern states where poverty and education troubles still reign; outside the South and Appalachia, New York was at the bottom.

Larry Irving, the assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, who oversaw the study, said: "It is positive that we doubled the number of computers and Internet access for African-Americans and Hispanics over the past four years, and it's great that we have seen an increase of 50 percent in one year for use of the Net" by minorities. But he said "it is abysmal that we still have a gap of 3-to-1 among the races" in Internet access at home, "and that's what we have to work on."

Private-sector help

President Clinton drew on the highlights of the report yesterday during the last leg of his tour of impoverished corners of the United States. He announced several private-sector initiatives to make computers more available to the poor, particularly in inner cities. But the White House did not link the study released yesterday to any new government initiatives, arguing instead that the disparities would be greater if Clinton had not pressed for more computers in schools, libraries and community centers.

Among those initiatives has been an "E-rate" that reduces the cost of Internet access for schools and libraries in low-income areas, a program Republicans have sought to limit because it is underwritten by fees on telephone bills. But mostly the Clinton administration has relied on private-sector grants, chiefly from computer and Internet companies.

"The message is that we need a lot of heavy lifting in the private sector," Irving said yesterday.

The racial divide

The study echoes the findings of several university and corporate surveys of computer use. Several of those have found an even wider racial divide.

"The big question is why African-Americans are not adopting this technology," said Donna L. Hoffman, a professor of management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "It is not just price, because they are buying cable and satellite systems in large numbers. So we have to look deeper to cultural and social factors. I think there is still a question of `What's in it for me?' "

Some of the statistics in yesterday's study suggest that minorities are beginning to answer that question. In 1994, only 10 percent of black households reported that they owned a computer, compared to 27 percent of white households. Last year the Census Bureau found after door-to-door visits to a sampling of 48,000 households that the figure rose to 23 percent for blacks and nearly 47 percent for whites.

The divide is greater when the Census Bureau looked at use of the Internet from home. Last year, about 27 percent of white households had Internet access, compared with about 9 percent of black and Hispanic households. Black and Hispanic computer users, unlike whites, are more likely to have Internet access outside the home than at home.

Income and education

Not surprisingly, most of the divisions in computer use correlate to income levels and education. Sixty-one percent of whites and 54 percent of blacks in households that earned more than $75,000 used the Internet regularly, but the figures dropped to 17 percent of whites and 8 percent of blacks when families earned $15,000 to $35,000.

Similarly, families in which the parents attended college were three times more likely to access the Internet from home than families where the parents stopped their education after earning a high school diploma or its equivalent.

One of the curious issues is why single-parent families use computers and the Internet so much less than two-parent families.

"It's an issue of money and interest," Hoffman said.

The report, issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is available through its Web site, www.ntia.doc.gov. Printed copies may be ordered by calling 202-482-7002.

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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