In a new study, 56 percent of low-to-moderate income inner-city adults from five Northeast cities said they knew not much or nothing at all about the Internet. The respondents said cost was the major obstacle to becoming computer literate and accessing the Internet. On an encouraging note, among those who have little or no familiarity with the Internet, 80 percent said they would be eager to participate in training.
The new research addressing the digital divide issue was sponsored by the FleetBoston Financial Foundation and conducted by the University of Massachusetts Poll. Low-to-moderate-income residents are defined as those having less than $40,000 of household income per year. Fewer than half (42 percent) of respondents have computers in the home, and only 32 percent are connected to the Internet. In contrast, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of those with incomes over $40,000 use a computer in the home and 61 percent are very comfortable using the Internet. The gap in computer access and Internet usage is leaving members of disadvantaged communities behind in the new economy, says Fleet.
The survey questioned 1,600 residents of low-to-moderate-income neighborhoods in the Northeast, 752 with incomes under $40,000, to examine both the rate of computer and Internet penetration in inner cities and to identify obstacles to greater digital inclusion. The sites included Boston, Harlem, Brooklyn, Newark, N.J., and Hartford, Conn. The findings suggest that while income marks the digital dividing line, computer access alone will not bridge the technology gap, and that comfort in learning how to navigate the Internet is also a major factor.
"The survey points out that the digital divide is not only an income-based problem, but one of race and educational levels. The good news is, all people, even with little Internet familiarity, show a strong willingness to go online if they are given the tools and the training to do so," said Gail Snowden, executive vice president and managing director of the Community Banking Group at Fleet.
"The challenge is to offer broad-based solutions which address access, training and content that can make the real difference," added Snowden. "Much of the attention around the Digital Divide has been focused on children in school; what has been overlooked is the important role of adults in the home. What adults need is their own familiarity with the Internet to the benefit of themselves, children and the community at large."
Among the survey's findings of households with annual incomes less than $40,000:
-- Twenty-five percent of the respondents knew quite a bit or a great deal about the Internet, but 56 percent reported knowing not much or nothing at all.
-- Respondents who said they knew not much or nothing at all about the Internet varied widely city by city: Newark (69 percent); Hartford (60 percent); Brooklyn (58 percent), Harlem (53 percent) and Boston (45 percent).
-- Familiarity with the Internet also varied by race and income. For example, 44 percent of African Americans with incomes under $40,000 reported knowing nothing at all about the Internet, compared to 15 percent for African Americans with incomes over $40,000.
-- Almost one in two families without a computer (46 percent) said that purchasing a computer was not very or not affordable at all.
-- While affordability is a problem among low- to moderate-income households without a computer, it especially impacts African American and Hispanic households: 64 percent of African Americans did not own a computer, compared to 55 percent of Hispanics and 42 percent of Europeans surveyed.
-- As education increases so does computer access. Among those who earn less than $40,000 a year and have less than a high school education, 70 percent were without a computer, versus 40 percent for those with a college degree.
-- The study showed that individuals want to gain a comfort level with computers and the Internet through training: 80 percent of those surveyed who are not at all familiar with the Internet, said they would be eager or likely to participate in computer and Internet training if given a free computer and free Internet access.
-- Four out of 10 said they would prefer training in a small group with their top choice in a community center.
The survey also suggests willingness by a large percentage of respondents to use online banking services, if they were given access and training in the technology. About 26 percent of those with incomes less than $40,000 reported that they would be very likely or somewhat likely to use Internet banking within the next year.
These findings support the basis for Fleet's CommunityLink project that is in the development stage. It is an economic development prototype to assess the educational and financial benefits of Internet connection for people in low-to-moderate-income communities. Through CommunityLink and other programs that address this issue, Fleet and other partners are planning to provide free state-of-the-art computers and Internet access for a test group of low-to-moderate income adults and some small businesses, and offer training.
According to the survey, only 3 percent of survey respondents said that they use the Internet to find out what was going on in their communities, indicating that the Internet is both underutilized by and perhaps not very useful to residents of low- and moderate-income communities. It also suggests that community content is not yet developed and available for use.
"Content on the Internet appears to be significantly underdeveloped as a useful source of information about the community - for example information on jobs, affordable housing, neighborhood issues, day care, and school programs. The poll's findings strongly suggest a number of ways for our foundation to help in combination with Fleet's Community Banking Group," said Michele Courton Brown, president of the FleetBoston Financial Foundation.
Among households with income below $40,000, Newark had the lowest level of computer ownership at 35 percent, while Boston had the highest at 48 percent and the other communities range in the middle, including Harlem (41 percent), Hartford (42 percent) and Brooklyn (44 percent).