Opportunity clicks

Why President Clinton's plan to wire the poor is a good start.

Published February 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

A week ago, technology writer Todd Oppenheimer outlined the holes in a new Clinton administration plan to subsidize computers and Internet access for low-income families. ClickStart, Oppenheimer argued, would do more to benefit the Silicon Valley's bottom line than to help underprivileged families. In an interview, B. Keith Fulton, director of the National Urban League's technology programs and policy, argues an opposing view.

Between the government subsidies and family contributions at the core of ClickStart, it could easily be argued that the program's participating technology companies are getting the equivalent of corporate welfare. Is there a risk that ClickStart will benefit Silicon Valley's bottom line more than low-income families?

I don't know that you should pit them against them each other. The point is, How do you get quality machines to a population that hasn't benefited from dropping prices? You figure out some way to subsidize it so it's affordable, and $5 a month sounds like a fair rate to pay for a device and Internet connectivity. It's not a substantial burden. This stuff isn't cheap, and you can't just give it away, that would be too much of a burden on the private sector. Will industry benefit? Sure. But that's secondary to having more citizens being able to plug into this economy. It means they will become workers and consumers, and the trade-off for what the corporation gets versus what the worker gets is a reasonable one.

By Silicon Valley measurements, $50 million is a paltry sum. How far will this go toward wiring the poor?

It's a start. It's important to bring attention to this problem in a significant way -- the government's already been able to leverage its [subsidies] with a tremendous amount of private sector investment. Some private sector investments have even begun to outstrip any of the government's. It's important to figure out ways to bring industry resources and talent to bear for the other domains -- communities and homes. If we leverage it with corporate monies, we may be able to turn it into $100 million or more, and I think then you're talking about a substantial number of communities being able to bring their community technology centers online. The untold story is how many people actually get jobs and then go back to work, pay taxes and get off the welfare rolls. ClickStart really gets us going in a substantial way; but it's still hardly enough to do the job that's required if we're going to leave no Americans behind.

Is technology the best tool for improving the standard of living and education for low-income families? Oppenheimer argues that a good deal of the information on the Internet is geared for white and upper-middle-class families and indulgent consumption, whereas the poor's needs are a little bit more basic -- they need food, shelter and good job training.

Folks who are trying to make their way into the economic mainstream have a compelling reason for using these devices -- training, skill enhancement and career opportunities of the job pools. But you're not perpetually in that state. A lot of our programs take people from food stamps to 401Ks. When she's at the 401K end of the spectrum, she's not looking solely at programs to help her gain more skills so she can gain a better job, she's now looking at ways to train online, and being able to get the New York Times for free becomes more important. But it's natural that people would organize their life on priorities, and I think if you are trying to acquire the skills set to earn a living wage for you and your family, then what's happening on E-Trade is not relevant for where you are right now. It's not forward-looking enough to say that poor folks will only want a certain kind of content.

Oppenheimer points to content geared for white males. But BET.com has just launched, you've got Urban Magic, Black Planet, various Latino Web sites, UP and others. Those content challenges and opportunities will definitely be a part of what brings more minorities to the Net. The Web is a great resource for low-income folks because of its educational applications, job and career portals, online training, distance learning opportunities, etc.

Technical support and training for low-income households is a complex issue because no computer is truly plug-and-play. Who will provide support for home users who may not possess technical savvy?

You're going to see community call centers created, where it's maybe the local tech center and the local community college working together to provide the necessary support for the beneficiaries of these programs. These community call centers will evolve to provide the support that nonprofits, community members and new owners need, without the kind of price that has traditionally been associated with support. What will evolve is that they'll rely on institutions, community colleges and community technology centers. Churches, too, will begin to get smarter as they realize they can use labs and technology to have a new kind of access to their congregation.

Free Internet access and discounted computers are often offered with onslaughts of advertising selling products and services. Do you think this presents any danger for low-income households?

ClickStart doesn't say that it's going to be subsidized by advertiser revenues, so it shouldn't be construed as something to be assumed about the Clinton program. Low-income consumers will have to learn how to use the Internet in a way that meets their own tastes and interests. We live in a world where you've got television commercials that are going to come on. I don't think that the latest Coca-Cola or McDonald's commercial is so dangerous to the person who happens to be watching whatever channel the commercial is on, and I don't think that it's going to be dangerous for someone who is surfing on the Internet. Where it might be a challenge -- and where we were on record as saying that it will be a challenge -- is if children are doing homework and in the middle of a math problem an intrusive advertisement pops up on the screen, I think that's too much.

Oppenheimer also argues that the government spent billions of dollars on KickStart, an earlier program to put computers and the Internet access into the nation's schools, but there's still no solid evidence that the use of computers in classrooms boosts learning. Could that same problem apply to households?

In 1999, we had the first longitudinal study on whether or not technology infusion in a school district made a difference -- it was in West Virginia. Thirty percent of the students' gains were attributable to investments in technology. Oppenheimer developed his idea during the embryonic stages of the deployment of these technologies. At some point, you have to be forward-looking, and I think the Clinton administration is trying to do that here.

If you make a commitment to leaving no one behind, then make the darned commitment, make substantial investments, and let's evaluate this thing closely to make sure that we maximize the return on our investments. It's easy for pundits to come in and say, "Show me the proof." Oppenheimer doesn't have any proof that it doesn't work. If he was being honest, he'd have to look back and say, wait a minute, here's what the Department of Education found, here's what they found in West Virginia with this longitudinal study, here are some other studies. At the Urban League they trained 1,400 low-income workers, who are now earning $32 million in salaries and pay $2.1 million in taxes. That's not a bad return on an investment.

There's more than $87 billion of pent-up demand in the black, Latino and urban underserved markets. I believe in scrutiny, but we have to understand that we're right now in the beginning of this and we're trying to make sure that we get it right.

With new programs aimed specifically at bringing low-income families and minorities online, are we at a turning point?

The Clinton program has yet to be approved by Congress. Some say that because this is an election year, there are political reasons for promoting ClickStart. But the E-Rate program had a tough road to go down. I hope that this new program gets similar treatment and Congress sees the wisdom of it, because it helps all constituencies. But I tend to think that while we're figuring things out, the statistics are coming out that things are getting worse -- the number of working poor is growing, the distance between the heads of companies and the workers is expanding, we have a lot of wealth being created, but that wealth is being concentrated in certain communities and kids in record numbers are failing in standardized tests. We have to figure out a way to help them, so we do risk taking our inequities from the 20th century well into the 21st, but I think these kinds of measures, these kinds of programs, will begin to mitigate some of the problems.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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