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The Digital Beat v.1 no.13, 08/06/99

The Digital Beat

Vol. 1, No. 13, 6 August 1999

By Debbie Becht, Kevin Taglang & Anthony Wilhelm

The Digital Divide and the US Hispanic Population

Hispanics and the Coming 'Minority-Majority'
Defining the Digital Divide
Telephone Penetration
Computer and Internet Penetration
Where People Access the Internet: Home vs Public Facilities
Beyond the Numbers
Tomas Rivera Policy Center
Hispanic & Asian Marketing Communication Research
California Telecommunications Policy Forum
Responding to the Divide
Information Technology Association of America
Technical Career Institutes
Commercial Content Providers
Cesar Chavez Community Center

I. Introduction

"America's digital divide is fast becoming a 'racial ravine'," said Larry Irving, assistant secretary of Commerce for Telecommunications. "It is now one of America's leading economic and civil rights issues and we have to take concrete steps to redress the gap between the information haves and have nots."

Mr. Irving's statement contradicts some of the more recent studies from academics and researchers who suggest that the Internet is beginning to look a lot like America. Other critics argue that the have/have-not distinction is really a have-now/have-later dichotomy. Benton's analysis of the recent data coupled with interviews with experts in the field suggest that Mr. Irving's remarks are supported by the weight of the evidence. In this Digital Beat, we focus on one underserved minority group, Hispanics (1), and explore some of the concepts and definitions related to how we as a society are beginning to define the digital divide.

Defining the digital divide as an important civil rights issue goes beyond social science to make a political and moral statement about the role communications technology plays in fostering a more inclusive and egalitarian America. People who have telecommunications services, such as a home telephone and a personal computer with Internet access, are able to effectively engage the global market economy, meaningfully participate in political discourse, and socially interact within the global village. People without home telephones and personal computers with Internet access risk being left behind, disconnected from the global village, the political process, and the global, information-driven, market economy.

II. Hispanics and the Coming 'Minority-Majority'

Although the history of race relations in America is older than the nation itself, the importance of the issue is rising with the coming "minority-majority" in American society, the name given by some to the changing demographics expected in the US over the next 50 years. In _The Demographics of Diversity_ (The Aspen Institute, 1998), Brad Edmondson describes "two Americas": one the aging, non-Hispanic white or "Anglo" America that is still found in smaller metropolitan areas, smaller towns and rural areas; the second is a younger, more multicultural America growing very rapidly in the most visible cultural centers of the country. (2)

There are, for example, approximately 31 million people of Hispanic origin in the U.S. (11.5% of the total population). By the year 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Hispanics will comprise the largest minority group (12.6% of the total U.S. population) and by 2050 one of every four Americans will be Hispanic. By comparison, the non-Hispanic White population is currently about 72% of the total population and by 2050 will represent just 53% -- signaling a tilt from a majority White nation to a majority non-White society. The changes are already evident in urban centers, such as Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles County, for example, Hispanics are already the largest ethnic group.

Of course, the use of an umbrella term like 'Hispanic' masks a rich diversity even within the group. Hispanics in America have roots in 22 different countries; their family histories are from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Caribbean islands, Central and South America as well as the U.S. Some 60% of Hispanics in the U.S. are more comfortable speaking Spanish, 20% English and nearly 20% both. And, although U.S. Latinos pump $300 billion into the U.S. economy, 40% of Latino children live in poverty, according to Newsweek. In 1996, nearly 28% of Mexican-American residents lived below the poverty line, 33% of Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states, 12.5% Cuban Americans, and 19% of Central and South Americans here as compared to just 6.5% of Whites and nearly 26% of African-Americans.

III. Defining the Digital Divide

1. Telephone Penetration

Discussions of the digital divide often begin will looks at telephone penetration, since telephone service is considered a basic communications necessity. In _Thorough Americans: Minorities and the New Media_ (The Aspen Institute, 1998), Penn State's Jorge Reina Schement writes, "telephone penetration deserves special attention because it constitutes the access point to many of the new services, such as e-mail and the Internet, associated with the new technologies...When a person lacks access to a telephone, he or she is functionally cut off."

There is both good and bad news when we take a closer look at telephone subscribership among Hispanics. Overall, disparities between Whites and Hispanics are narrowing. In 1994, telephone penetration rates were over 10% higher in White households than in Hispanic ones. By 1998, that gap had narrowed by 37.3% to just 6.4%. At the highest income levels (households with incomes of $75,000/yr or higher), there is virtually no difference in telephone penetration rates among various racial and ethnic groups. When looking at the lowest income levels, however, more disturbing disparities become apparent: White and Asian American households earning less than $15,000/yr have telephone penetration rates of around 90%; for Hispanics in this income bracket, the rate is a meager 82%.

2. Computer and Internet Penetration

As we have all read and heard, Internet access in this country is soaring: 26.2% of U.S. households now have Internet access -- an increase of nearly 41% since 1997, when 18.6% of households had access. Moreover, access is up for all demographic groups, an increase of 52.8% among White households, 52% for Black ones, and 48.3% for Hispanics. Although more and more people are reaping the rewards of the World Wide Web, the disparity in access along certain fault lines, including race and ethnicity, continues to widen.

* the PC penetration rate for non-Hispanic White households is 46.6%, while it is 25.5% for Hispanic households. This gap (21.1%) has actually risen by over 42% since 1994.

* the Internet access rates for non-Hispanic White households (29.8%) is much higher than for Hispanic ones (12.6%); this gap (17.2%) widened by 56% in just one year.

The NTIA report highlights how this problem is deeper than income:

Even when holding income constant, there is still a yawning divide among distinct racial and ethnic groups. At the lowest income levels, the gap has widened considerably for computer ownership.

* For households earning less than $15,000, the gap between non-Hispanic White and Hispanic households rose substantially, from 5.6% to 8.1% between 1994 and 1998.

* For the households earning between $15,000 and $34,999, the disparities between non-Hispanic White and Hispanic households increased by 46% or (4.0 percentage points).

* a White, two-parent household earning less than $35,000/yr is nearly four times as likely to have Internet access as Hispanic households in that same income category.

These data support the notion that the digital divide in U.S. society is growing, even when you account for income. Another interesting fact not in the Falling Through The Net report is that Hispanics and African Americans remain woefully "underrepresented" on the Internet. While these two groups represent about 1 in 5 American households, they represent only about 1 out of 10 "netizens," or households that are online and using the Internet. If you look at low-income households moreover, they are less represented online today, as a share of all Internet-using households, than they were six years ago. Thus we are faced with the fact that notwithstanding plummeting computer costs and ubiquitous Internet service providers, the gains in computer ownership and home Internet access are still occurring predominantly among middle and upper-income households.

3. Where People Access the Internet: Home vs Public Facilities

The NTIA report finds that Whites are more likely to have Internet access at home than Blacks and Hispanics are from any location (home, work, school, library or community center). The demographic groups who have Internet access at work are the same groups that have higher rates of access at home.

The NTIA concludes that those who are less likely to have Internet access at home or work (e.g., those earning less than $20,000, certain minorities, and those without a college degree) are relying on the resources of public facilities.

Through federal universal service support, known as the e-rate, schools and libraries are receiving support to connect to the Internet. As hoped for, many people are reporting that they access the Internet from these community institutions. Certain groups who access the Internet outside the home are particularly likely to go online at K-12 schools (Hispanics 35.1% -- especially Hispanics in rural US areas 46.6%).

In _The Digital Melting Pot_, Forrester Research's Ekaterina Walsh found that technology does not divide people, and diversity is alive and well on the Internet. Internet use numbers would be higher, Walsh contends, if they included those who use computers outside the home. The NTIA began to measure such use in its latest report, acknowledging that Blacks and Hispanics "more often turn to access outside the home." By excluding from the main body of its statistics those who use computers and the Internet at such places as work or libraries, the government has artificially widened the digital divide among groups, Walsh and other critics argue. For example, in part two of its report, the Commerce Department acknowledged that 49 percent of Blacks access the Internet from work.

While it may be true that a disproportionate percentage of the poor and minorities use public access centers, this should not stand in as a substitute for home-based access. We all know that use of a library or after-school program may be qualitatively different from having the leisure and privacy that home-based use affords. We should avoid unwittingly creating second-class citizens when it comes to technology access by supporting, through public and private initiatives, home-based use of the Internet as a long-term solution to the digital divide. To say that access to the Internet at work for a head of household is sufficient to meet the information, educational, and communications needs of the entire family is illogical and unfair to those persons who could so palpably benefit from more widespread exposure to this medium.

IV. Beyond the Numbers

The NTIA finds that the most-cited reasons why certain households have never used the Internet is that they "don't want it" or it is too expensive. Although the former is the most-mentioned reason overall, the cost factor dominates among low-income groups, Hispanics, single-parent families, the youngest householders and the unemployed. For Hispanics in particular, the cost factor ranked highest (23.4%) surpassing "don't want it" (19.6%). But recent studies have gone beyond the NTIA and Forrester quantitative data to provide some of the reasons why this community may be lagging behind in computer ownership and Internet access from the home.

1. Tomas Rivera Policy Center

While at the Tomas Rivera Policy Center, Anthony Wilhelm, Benton's Director of Communications Policy and Practice, conducted qualitative analysis of middle-income Hispanic families in southern California. Through focus groups conducted with the heads of Hispanic households from Santa Ana and Riverside, California, Wilhelm, in _Buying into the Computer Age: A Look at Hispanic Families_ (1997), provides context for understanding the technology gap through these families' attitudes and opinions about computers. The motivation to buy computers is there -- most of the Hispanic families who participated in the focus groups believed that they, like many Americans, need computers to keep up with progress and, so, are as inclined to buy a PC for their own use as they are for their childrens' use. But, while they found many advantages to owning a computer, they were also anxious about pornography on the Internet and the antisocial nature of using computers in a family setting.

Traditional barriers -- high cost, lack of consumer information and the short half-life of computer technology -- were also identified, but many of the families were nevertheless interested in taking computer classes and gaining more exposure to computers. Focus group participants were open to taxpayer-supported subsidies to provide Internet access, since the benefits of network use accelerate as more users come onto the system. Some participants also made the point that federal investment in technology will yield dividends later with a better educated population and a more able workforce ready to meet the challenges of the information economy.

As one participant emphasized, "the government...wants the kids to come out of high school and be computer knowledgeable, but if they don't give them the proper tools, then they are not going to do it." Similarly, another participant said, "I think if [a] computer company wanted to make profits, they would make their computers accessible to young people...A person is going to be familiar with that computer and in the future he will buy one."

Participants expressed a need for 1) greater experience with and exposure to computers through adult classes in schools, churches and community centers; 2) a "consumer report" -- in Spanish and in a format relevant to potential Hispanic consumers -- examining the best brands and types of hardware and software; 3) advertisements for both Spanish- and English-speakers in both mainstream and ethnic media; and 4) media literacy and critical thinking skills to navigate the Internet.

2. Hispanic & Asian Marketing Communication Research

Hispanic & Asian Marketing Communication Research, Inc. -- a multicultural marketing research company in Belmont, California -- conducted a similar study with focus groups in the San Francisco area to gain a better understanding of why Hispanic household computer penetration rates have increased so dramatically in the last several years. The company also aimed at gaining a better understanding of Hispanic consumers' attitudes towards and knowledge of computers, as well as the barriers and opportunities involved in increasing computer ownership.

In _Hispanics Increase Their Purchase of Computers: Why Now?_, the company reported that many Hispanics felt that they would be left behind if they did not incorporate themselves in the world of computing. Again in focus groups, they reported feeling pressure to keep up with the times and were motivated by their children, who they wanted to be computer literate. The focus groups revealed that US Hispanics appreciate the ability to be connected to their countries of origin and their cultures through the Internet. Most people used computers to make virtual visits to their countries of origin to look at newspapers or communicate with friends and relatives. They also used the technology to organize their daily schedules and finances, for educational or recreational purposes, and/or to have more contact with friends and relatives.

Apart from these motivators, the availability of credit also helped increase computer purchases, but lack of sales and support information in Spanish have been obstacles. General education and targeted communications were also absent during the purchase decision period. The study found that the respondents needed clear information and clear choices -- in Spanish, for many -- in order to understand the purchasing process and computer functions.

Additional barriers included concerns about the possibility of credit card fraud and other monetary fraud, that pornographic material could be accessed by children, and, to a lesser extent, about hackers and junk e-mail.

3. California Telecommunications Policy Forum

Dr Armando Valdez, Chair of the California Telecommunications Policy Forum, says that the Latinos who are not benefiting from the Internet experience the same walls as non-Hispanics: they are the poor that either do not have phone connectivity or do not have access to Internet-linked computers. He goes on to caution, "Be wary of some of the digital divide hype that claims that certain racial and cultural groups have fewer computers than their White counterparts. Keep in mind that they also have fewer IRAs, summer homes, and other assets than their white counterparts. The sociological data demonstrate clearly that a Latino or Black with comparable education and experience earns less than their white counterparts. Family sizes are also larger and thus the per capita income is significantly lower.

"Most of the people talking about the Digital Divide are narrowly informed, yet one cannot adequately understand the lack of access in one arena outside of the broader context oF social and economic stratification."

V. Responding to the Divide

The release of the NTIA's data has garnered more than just attention. During President Clinton's "poverty tour" -- which coincided with the release of the NTIA report -- the President introduced the New Markets Initiative aimed at improving the conditions in underserved urban and rural communities. Through tax credits, private and public investment, innovative lending programs and other initiatives, the Administration's proposals address the overall economic viability of U.S. communities mainly through creating incentives for venture capitalists to invest in low-income communities. Public and private initiates have been addressing the digital divide some time as the Subcommittee on Empowerment of the House Small Business Committee heard last month.

1. Information Technology Association of America

Harris Miller, President of the Information Technology Association of America, refers to the digital divide as "The Digital Opportunity." ITAA membership includes 11,000 companies involved with software, services, the Internet, electronic commerce, professional services, information services and telecommunications. Harris recognized the growing importance of electronic commerce and said assuring the opportunity to access the Internet and to participate in the digital economy is not just as an empowerment issue, but an economic performance issue as well. Miller offered that affordable prices, compelling need and easy access will close the digital divide -- to a degree.

Miller also identified another problem: getting members from all parts of society involved in creating the Internet community. Miller raised the issue of a woeful lack of appropriately skilled and educated workers for the information technology industry and the disturbingly low percentages of minorities in that workforce. Last year, according to the Computer Research Association's Taulbee Survey, only 10 African Americans received PhDs in Computer Science and only six Hispanic Americas. Similarly, only 2% of undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to these groups respectively. The workforce data for African American and Hispanic Americans pose a similar challenge. African Americans represent 5.4% of all computer programmers and 7.1% of computer systems analysts -- two of the core jobs in the IT industry. Hispanic Americans hold 4.6 and 2.5% of these jobs respectively.

2. Technical Career Institutes

The Technical Career Institutes (TCI), a two-year, degree-granting proprietary school in Manhattan, serves more then 3,500 students in programs designed to prepare a well-trained workforce in various fields of technology. TCI's diverse student body -- 75% of whom are African American and Hispanic -- include 55% who come from families with an average annual income of less then $12,000. TCI helps to mobilize the resources of business, schools, community-based organizations, parents and government to improve students' access to and proficiency with technology.

TCI's President, Thomas Coleman told Congress: "businesses must reach out to community and faith-based organizations, schools and government.They must support neighborhood-based Internet and technology centers, provide business mentors, donate equipment, and make computers in schools and colleges such as ours available during non-instructional hours. Government can help by creating incentives for the business community to become more directly involved with schools and colleges as training partners. The use of tax and other economic incentives is one way to encourage these activities in the private sector."

3. Commercial Content Providers

The World Wide Web has experienced a recent boom in Spanish content. As Latin Americans and U.S. Latinos get connected, several companies are rushing to provide them with tailored content and service. StarMedia -- the New York-based Spanish- and Portuguese-language portal, is aimed at Latinos in both North and South America and boasts 60 million page views/month.

Fernando Espuelas, StarMedia co-founder, launch the portal in 1996, offering e-mail, chat and discussion rooms, as well as searches and guides to the Internet. "What I saw was a moment in history -- the opportunity to reunify the Latin community across the world," Espuelas said.

The "Pan-American" approach has paid off for StarMedia and other firms which can potentially attract millions of users across the Americas. Some companies, however, are looking towards a more localized approach., a bilingual Phoenix start-up, is banking on the idea that Hispanic Americans will appreciate content that is aimed at their distinct needs and interests. Whether the giant Latin American portals or more U.S.-focused Spanish language content providers succeed in the end, American Hispanics have an increasing amount of choices as they log on to the Web.

4. Cesar Chavez Community Center

The Cesar Chavez Community Center in Riverside, California houses the University of California-Riverside's _Community Digital Initiative_ project, one of eleven projects in California funded by the _Computers in Our Future_ initiative of the California Wellness Foundation. CDI has a digital lab and offers computer programs for youth ages 14 to 23 years old who live in Riverside's predominantly low-income Eastside community. Students can walk, drive or take a bus to the center where they can learn how to use different software programs, access the Internet and other community resources in the school district. "They come to the Center to find out about jobs, write up resumes and communicate," says Richard Chabran, director and principal investigator of CDI, "There are classes for people who have never used a computer at home and the exposure helps them become aware of what's possible." CDI works in partnership with schools, the National Urban League, the Community Settlement Association, AmeriCorps, Upward Bound and other local organizations and corporations.

VI. Conclusion

Both the research done by the NTIA and Forrester Research show the importance of community technology access points for improving the equity of computer and Internet use. The data indicate the particular importance of community access points for Hispanics as well. While they should not be viewed as a long-term substitue for home-based access, these access points provide some remedy to the digital divide.

The Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet), with some 300 members, is making a difference by improving equitable access to computers. CTCNet affiliates include libraries, youth organizations, multiservice agencies, stand-alone computing centers, cable access centers, housing development centers, settlement houses, and various other nonprofit organizations. CTCNet and the Computers in Our Future program mentioned above are demonstrating that the following features of community-based organizations are crucial to their success in recruiting and training previously unreached clients:

* Community centers or community-based organizations are friendly and inviting places that are established and respected parts of a neighborhood;

* Center staff are skilled at dealing with the needs of the intended users, such as low-literacy skills, unemployment or housing issues;

* Centers offer a much-in-demand environment beyond access to computers -- a staff that can train, mentor or coach.

To promote further access to technology for low income communities, we must build on these models. A fully funded E-rate program, for example, greatly increases the chances of connecting schools and libraries and allowing them to provide access in their communities. Congress has budgeted $10 million in FY 1999 to support community technology centers (CTCs) -- the funding wound up as part of the omnibus bill under the budget for the Adult and Vocational Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. The Clinton Administration has also proposed a $65 million budget for CTCs in FY 2000, which would likely appear in the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, appropriations bill. Tight caps on discretionary spending, however, may put CTC funding in jeopardy.

Richard Chabran, Director of the Center for Virtual Research at the University of California at Riverside, offers the following policy agenda (3): 1) directing technology resources to community-based organizations in low-income neighborhoods; and 2) raising the literacy levels of low income communities with respect to technology. Chabran includes measures that state level leaders can take, as well as those who work at the city, county, or neighborhood level:

* Direct a portion of workforce development dollars and funding for after school programs toward technology training in community-based organizations;

* Redirect funding for juvenile justice and other crisis intervention for kids towards technology centers as a prevention strategy; and

* Create a dedicated funding source to expand CTC-like centers in needy low income communities.

* Define technology fluency so residents are equipped for the jobs of today and tomorrow and are able to be full participants in economic, civic, social and cultural life;

* Support mentors and tutors in community technology centers so there is low client-to-provider ratio, enabling centers to effectively meet the diverse needs of clients entering the workforce; and

* Through technology training programs, create learning environments which are flexible and offer the range of career path options including adult basic skills, articulated welfare-to-work programs, technology skills, and consumer literacy.

If this technology gap is not closed, the dream that the Information Age will bring economic advancement and social progress could give way to a future in which social divisions grow deeper and despair tightens its grip on those who are left behind. Realizing the dream will take a concerted effort at all levels, from Washington to the grassroots.


1. We have used the umbrella term Hispanic to be consistent with NTIA report.

2. Edmondson writes: Some rural counties, too, are packed with children, but they are not strongholds of the Anglo American middle class. In the average U.S.county, 26% of residents are children under the age of 18, according to the Census Bureau. Areas with the highest concentration of children are places such as Imperial, CA, which is dominated by Hispanic agricultural workers and is 37% children; or Todd, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Sioux reservation, which is 46% children. Meanwhile, rural counties that are dominated by non-Hispanic whites are usually aging.

3. Richard Chabran offered these recommendations on behalf of the Computers in Our Future Policy Work Group.

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