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"Digital divide'' puts poor children at disadvantage, report says

By DONALD BRADLEY
Kansas City Star
June 20, 2000
Web posted at: 4:19 PM EDT (2019 GMT)

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Kansas City Star) -- A teacher at St. Vincent's child care center was explaining how computers work to a preschool class when she picked up the mouse and asked if anyone knew what it was called.

"That's a rat," a little boy answered.

Forgive his mistake.

Chances are he doesn't have a computer at home. In fact, there's a fair chance he doesn't even have a telephone. Safe bet, too, that he doesn't know what the Internet is.

So how does this child stack up against children who've been logging on since they were old enough to sit up straight? And not just today, but years down the road in college and later in the job market?

That problem is a focus of Kids Count 2000 released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report, which tracks child welfare state by state, contends the country's "digital divide" is depriving millions of poor children of the latest technology, putting them at a disadvantage in education and, eventually, employment.

It shows that 84 percent of families in low-income urban areas have no computer. Among all families, that figure is 49 percent.

A case could be made that computers and the Internet are still new enough that not everyone should be expected to have those, but the report also says that 50 percent of families in low-income urban areas don't have a car. And those have been around for a century.

And 20 percent of those poor families don't have a telephone. Among all families, that figure is eight eight percent.

"This country has lots of families where every member has a cell phone, and we've got five million children who don't have any phone at all," Bill O'Hare, national Kids Count coordinator, told The Kansas City Star on Monday.

The annual report is the 10th compiled by the Casey Foundation, an advocacy organization based at the University of Maryland. The group's mission is to provide public policy makers with data that identify problems and help mold programs to make life better for children. It is one of the more comprehensive studies of child welfare.

Haves and have nots

The theme of this year's Kids Count was "the haves and have nots" of critical supports that many middle-class families take for granted.

Families without cars are cut off from jobs and schools. Those without phones are cut off from friends and relatives. Those without computers are cut off from information.

These families have been barely touched by the economic boom of the 1990s, said Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Casey Foundation.

At St. Vincent's in Kansas City, about 60 percent of the 400 children live in homes without telephones.

The school might have several emergency numbers for a child, but those numbers often are not working, said Kim Jacobs, the center's director of social services.

"And we have kids who have a phone this month, but won't have it next month," Jacobs said.

Not long ago, she visited a class at an elementary school in the Shawnee Mission School District and asked which students had a computer at home. Each raised a hand.

She later posed the same question to a class at St. Vincent's.

Only one child's hand went up.

And for those children who do have computers, the units are often cast-offs with outdated software, she said.

"The economy has gotten better for a lot of people, but our families are just as poor as they were," Jacobs said.



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