Commentary: Across America, A Troubling "Digital Divide"

Few would disagree that the New Economy has brought a wave of prosperity to America. But increasingly, we see that the rewards are not distributed evenly--and not just because your employer hasn't dreamed up a way to you into millionaire status. A serious "digital divide" is emerging, creating gaps between technological haves and have-nots by region, race, and socioeconomic class, according to several new studies.

The most recent: a report by the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. The study ranks the 50 states on how well they're adapting to the New Economy. It uses criteria such as number of high-tech jobs, quality of educational technology, percentage of population online, commercial Internet domains, and available venture capital. The report identifies a clear geographic pattern: The West Coast and Eastern Seaboard from New Hampshire to Virginia are at the forefront of the 21st Century Economy. The Deep South and the upper Midwest lag far behind. The keys to success: elementary and secondary schools that prepare workers for diversified, export-focused economies, plus college research centers that provide brainpower for innovation.

ROLE MODELS. There are some unlikely success stories. Delaware and Minnesota are transforming themselves from industrial and agricultural centers into cyberfriendly domains, the PPI study says. But too many states still adhere to outdated models. "Some states still have a 1980s industrial mentality," says urban planner Robert D. Atkinson, the study's co-author. "They grab every job they can find rather than looking to create an innovation-based economy that is going to produce higher incomes."

Laggard states should imitate those at the top. Utah Governor Mike O. Leavitt recalls how, a decade ago, the Provo-Orem metropolitan area was "absolutely in the dumps." But state policies focused on attracting software, biotech, and aerospace technology, and lawmakers poured millions into updating schools with new technology. The payoff: Utah has become home to some 2,000 high-tech companies, and the Provo-Orem area is a thriving hub for software development. The PPI ranks Utah sixth in the U.S. but third in workforce education and fifth in education technology.

Addressing the racial and sociological divide may be far more difficult. A Commerce Dept. report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, found that households with annual incomes above $75,000 are more than 20 times as likely to use the Internet as those earning less than $15,000. Single-parent households are less than half as likely to be wired as two-parent families. The disparity is even greater among African American families: Black children living with one parent are less than one-fourth as likely to have Net access as those in two-parent households.

SETTING THE STAGE. In the poorest neighborhoods, the National Urban League reports that just 16% of schools have access to the Internet. "Policies we're setting now will shape the [economic] opportunity sets for the next 10 or 20 years," says B. Keith Fulton, the Urban League's Director of Technology Programs & Policy. "If folks don't get plugged in now, they will probably be marginalized into a low-wage economy."

It's up to government and the private sector to bridge the opportunity gap so have-nots can participate in the New Economy. Studies such as these should prompt other governors to follow Virginia's James Gilmore, who created the nation's first Secretary of Technology. If states don't take action now, America could soon have a Digital Dustbowl, with families loading their PCs onto their trucks and heading to California or Colorado or Connecticut in search of a better future.

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