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Digital divide still an issue in Minnesota

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Digitally divided
Stephanie Young runs a computer class at the Rondo Community Outreach Library. She says users range from those with computer skills who just need access to the Internet to people with no computer experience at all.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

St. Paul resident Jose Ruz has managed to avoid using computers his entire life. The construction worker says he's gotten by just fine without them -- until now.

"OK, so now go up to edit," Stephanie Young says. Young is the director of the computer lab at the Rondo Community Outreach Library.

"Where?" Ruz asks.

"Right here where my finger is pointing," says Young. "Yeah, exactly, click and then copy. Yeah, good job," the two laugh. 

Public access
Computers are available almost every day at the Rondo Community Outreach Library in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jessica Mador

Ruz is in his mid-30s and admits he doesn't know what he's doing, so he's brought a good sense of humor with him to his lesson. 

He's come to the Rondo Community Outreach Library computer lab with a clear goal. He's a member of the Laborers Union Local 563 and says he wants to learn how to use a computer so he can move up to a better position.

Stephanie Young says she sees people like Ruz at least a few times a week.    "Jose is actually doing pretty well," says Young. "A lot of people are totally mystified and need a lot more practice with the mouse. People tend to get frustrated if things don't go their way the first time. That seems to confirm their fears that they're too dumb for computers."

Young says that like Ruz, people who don't have computer experience, especially older people, usually avoid using them until something in their lives forces them to try. But once they do, she says, they usually get hooked. 

A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that nationally, more than 70 percent of all adults use the Internet. 

"People tend to get frustrated if things don't go their way the first time. That seems to confirm their fears that they're too dumb for computers."

But a closer look reveals a different picture. Many more young people are online than older people. African-Americans are less likely to use the Internet than other groups, and rural residents have much less access than urban dwellers. 

But income is the real dividing line. More than 90 percent of people with incomes over $75,000 a year are online. That's compared with just 55 percent of those making less than $30,000 a year. 

A new report from the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty finds that basic technology skills can vastly expand access to better opportunities, jobs and higher wages. 

The report also finds that community technology centers like the one at the Rondo Library play a crucial role in teaching those skills, especially for low-income residents. 

Young says there is steady demand for time in the computer lab. She says she sees at least one new face every day. Computer time is also in demand in the rest of the library, especially on weekends, when people often wait more than an hour for the Internet. 

Advocates say this trend is consistent wherever public computers are available. Young says community technology centers do a great job helping people develop computer skills. But she says they can't keep up with demand, and they can't be expected to close the digital divide on their own. 

"There's a lot of talk of digital divide, and most people seem to think that it will go away on its own as generations change and there's Internet access all around," says Young. "But I feel really strongly that it won't without a lot of outside support, making Internet access more affordable, getting the resources out there and telling people how to use the resources." 

Mike Wassenaar is executive director of the St.  Paul Neighborhood Network, a group that offers technology training. He says the digital divide between low and high income groups will likely widen, as more and more services move online and computer technology evolves. 

Wassenaar says closing the divide is about more than just basic computer skills. It's about providing affordable broadband Internet access. 

"There needs to be a multipronged approach to providing low-cost access to broadband connectivity,  providing computer resources to people who have economic need and then providing training," says Wassenaar. 

Minneapolis recently signed a 10-year contract with US Internet for citywide wireless broadband. The contract includes free service for some community technology centers, subsidized service for non-profits and funding for hardware and training. Five percent of the network's profits will go to a digital inclusion fund aimed at closing the digital divide. 

The city of St. Paul is in the process of developing its own citywide broadband plan. The plan is still in the early stages, but advocates say that any citywide Internet project should include a similar strategy to improve access and training for low-income residents.