Archives For September 2011

Comcast’s slick plan to create greater equality online

Last week NPR reported that Comcast will soon offer those who can least afford to pay for internet access a way to get online from home.  Eligible households will only have to pay $9.95 a month for a high-speed connection, giving the poor a viable way to access the information superhighway.

This affordable alternative to Comcast’s regular $50 monthly charge is a significant move when we consider how much the web now permeates everyday life.  The company should be commended for promoting greater internet access to people whom the internet revolution has left behind.

Still, we should be wary of claims that Comcast’s new plan will meaningfully narrow the digital divide.  Tackling this problem by making internet access more affordable is akin to promoting literacy by giving out free books.  The scope of the digital divide is far deeper than it may appear.  There needs to be an honest recognition of what fuels this gap in the first place.

We can start by acknowledging that the power of the internet lies not only in being able to access it but in possessing the right skill set to use it for personal advancement.  Digital inequality is much more of a sociological than a technological problem.  In order to foster greater opportunity online, several trends must be addressed:

  • Low-income parents tend to have little educational attainment.  Few have finished college and some have not even graduated from high school.
  • Their jobs tend to require little internet proficiency and do not encourage them to enhance their digital skills.
  • Their kids attend schools where the internet is used mostly as a way to master information rather than as an exploratory tool.

The timing of Comcast’s announcement, coming just a day after the U.S. Census Bureau released its bleak 2011 poverty figures, is ironic.  There are now over 46 million poor Americans, many of whom do not have home internet and most of whom lack the skills to participate in the digital revolution in the ways higher-income people can.  The time is ripe for an initiative in the spirit of Comcast’s, just one that gets to the heart of the problem.  The company’s intention to send its new customers “digital literacy” kits just won’t cut it.

Poor for more than just one day a year

Mid-September not only means fall is in the air but also the annual rediscovery of poverty in America.  The 2011 Census Bureau figures released yesterday paint a bleak picture.  There are now more poor people in this country than at any time during the 52 years this information has been tracked, and the poverty rate – at 15.1 percent – matches the highest it has been since before the war on poverty during the 1960s.

This rediscovery of poverty usually doesn’t last and is long gone by October.  The poor may reenter our consciousness toward the end of the year, as their struggles become a source of compassion for those inspired by the giving season.  Then, by mid-January the poor are largely forgotten again.

If knowledge is power, then we will see the latest Census Bureau numbers as cause for taking action – not just today because the poor occupy the headlines, but throughout the year.  We need to place greater priority on mitigating the poverty in our midst, despite the fact that most of the year we are led to believe this problem doesn’t exist.  Just because the poor are typically absent from the news and from political speeches doesn’t mean we should diminish the importance of helping them.

And there is much we can do to effect change.  Lots of nonprofits across the country are successfully creating opportunity for low-income Americans.  They just need your support – whether that means giving money or volunteering your time.  These are the sorts of organizations featured on this blog, so please return to learn more about them and how you can help.

When it Comes to Investing in Opportunity, Every Bit Counts

This summer New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and financier George Soros donated a combined $60 million to the Young Men’s Initiative, which aims to enable low-income Black and Latino men to pursue education and jobs as alternatives to crime.  The publicity surrounding this tremendous gift (which I learned about on Poverty Insights) is an indicator of how much our society exalts the actions of celebrity philanthropists.  This publicity also highlights our tendency to view high-impact social investing as something done only by the very rich.  It is as if what the rest of us have to contribute doesn’t really matter.

We should think again.  Though chances are you have much less to give than Bloomberg or Soros, don’t let that deter you from doing what you can to invest in opportunity for low-income people – whether that means donating money or volunteering your time.  The nonprofits featured on this blog need all the help they can get, and that includes yours.  Maybe what you have to give won’t get publicity but it will surely make an impact.  And isn’t that what really counts!

Teaching the Homeless to Feed the Hungry

On August 12th I posted about the amazing work Future Chefs is doing to prepare low-income kids in the Boston area for decent-paying restaurant jobs.  Read more here about the growing national network of similar nonprofits creating such “catalyst kitchens.”