Sunday, November 29, 1998

from the Portland Press Herald

Mainers strive to close gap in computer skills

By ERIC BLOM Staff Writer Copyright © 1998 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Viola Marshal and her husband both lost their manufacturing jobs earlier this year in layoffs. With three young children at their home in Sydney, they're struggling to pay the bills.

So the arrival of their 8-year-old son's Christmas list this year caused some heartache. "He wrote to Santa that he wanted a yo-yo and a computer," which the family cannot possibly afford, said Viola Marshal. "He's a whiz with things like that. I feel like we're holding him back. It's really frustrating."

The often-predicted "information gap" - between those who can afford computer technology and those who cannot - has arrived for families like the Marshals. But a variety of individuals and organizations in Maine are working to make sure that chasm does not grow.

These people and agencies are offering poor people computer training and, in some cases, basic reading skills as the first step in technology literacy. They are raising money to install computer labs in low-income housing projects. And they're even funneling cast-off computers into the homes of low-income Mainers.

In Weld, residents often find Abe Kreworuka at the dump with his laptop computer, demonstrating the power of information technology to poor people. He has also organized a program that distributes discarded computer equipment to people who cannot afford anything else.

In Gorham, residents of a low-income housing development for senior citizens and handicapped people have begun learning how to use computers and the Internet at the facility's new computer center. Training classes have been held and residents are sharing their computer discoveries with each other.

In various other Maine communities, from Saco to Presque Isle, agencies and individuals are installing computers and Internet connections at day-care centers, civic clubs and housing developments that serve low-income clients. They're also organizing free and low-cost training programs to help poor residents understand and use computer technology.

"Information makes us powerful," said Diana Huot, executive director of York-Cumberland Housing Development Corp., which plans to set up mini-computer centers at 37 of its 46 low-income elderly and family housing centers in southern Maine. The agency has funding for nine of the planned 60 computer work stations and is actively seeking the rest of the money it needs to complete the $250,000 project.

"Computers can be a means of starting their own business. I think this opens up all kinds of doors. This is access to things we can't even imagine right now," Huot said.

Of course, buying a computer is not the top concern for most lower-income families or individuals. They're focused on paying the rent, feeding the kids, figuring out how to afford health care.

Only 31 percent of households with incomes under $25,000 a year have a computer at home, compared to 73 percent of households making at least $50,000 and 54 percent of those with incomes between $25,000 and $50,000 a year, according to a survey by Market Decisions in South Portland. The survey had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

"If you think about a family on a $10,000 budget, a computer is just not in there," said Christopher St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy in Augusta. "Their thinking and struggling is about access to health care or food or with paying the rent."

Affluent people also are far more likely to have access to a workplace computer than the poor, by a ratio of better than three to one.

The disparity is significant. Most employers these days expect people to have computer skills. Many job-training programs and public-school classes require computer proficiency. Even civic groups and social service agencies are referring people more and more to the Internet for information. Lack of access to computers makes poor people feel even further outside the mainstream of society and more worried about their ability to help their families move forward.

Viola Marshal, for example, finds herself hampered in efforts to be an effective leader for Cub Scouts and Brownies by a lack of access to the Internet, where she is often told to look for information.

The introduction of computers and the Internet to all of Maine's schools and libraries has helped create access for many low-income families. But it is nowhere near equal access.

For example, both Viola Marshal and her husband are going back to school for job retraining. Each of them needs to use a computer to complete his or her course work.

To use a computer, they have to drive 25 minutes each way to Kennebec Valley Technical College. That means planning their day and their child-care responsibilities around a computer terminal. And it does nothing to help their children keep up with classmates who are playing with - and becoming proficient at using - home computers.

Their experience is typical for many low-income Mainers.

Rural libraries often have limited hours. Many school computers are not open for public use. And most public libraries have a limited number of computer terminals available, making it hard for poor people to get onto a keyboard when they need one.

"If you don't have a library in your town and your school is 30 miles away and you don't have a car, then you don't have access," Kreworuka said. Disabled or elderly poor people, in particular, may find public-access sites impractical. And for those people who don't know how to use a computer - and may also have trouble with basic literacy - all the hardware in the world doesn't help.

There's also the problem of getting some poor people interested in using computers in the first place.

Kreworuka's background as an instructor with Franklin County Basic Education and as a community organizer have convinced him that problems with basic literacy and technology literacy combine to keep many families in poverty. But many poor people don't see that. "If your day is filled with survival kinds of things," Kreworuka said, "you really don't see a purpose to this."

That's where Kreworuka is trying to make a difference.

As a first step, he goes to places like the local dump where he can begin to show people the potential of computers and the Internet.

He tries to show them how they can use the technology to improve their lives: maybe use an electronic bulletin board to help locate transportation, or a word-processing program to write a press release for the local newspaper about a proposed food cooperative.

"You have to address what their more immediate problem is in their life," he said. "You see a result or you don't, but at least you see the possibility."

Kreworuka also founded a program called the Electronic Grange Network, which provides poor people with donated computer equipment for use in their homes. And he works with poor people on issues such as basic literacy, if that is what is stopping them from accessing technology.

Meanwhile, numerous low-income housing agencies - as well as a few day-care centers and community centers that serve low-income people - are trying to put computer hardware into the hands of poor people.

One of the most active programs has been the Neighborhood Networks initiative, sponsored by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. The initiative has encouraged, mostly through moral support but also a few small grants, the introduction of mini-computer centers at places such as low-income housing facilities in Bangor, Orono, Deer Isle, Saco and a half-dozen other Maine communities.

York-Cumberland Housing has perhaps the most ambitious Neighborhood Network plan for bringing computer work stations and the Internet to its facilities.

In October, the agency opened computer centers at two of its subsidized housing facilities in Gorham. By January, it plans to open centers in its Westbrook and Bath housing developments. And within three years, it hopes to open another 33 centers in southern Maine.

The low-income senior citizens and disabled people in their housing units will increasingly need the Internet to access services, shop for goods and contact family members, Huot said.

The families that York-Cumberland serves need the computers to improve their job skills and self-confidence as they try to enter the work force or find better jobs.

"They often come without a lot of basic life skills: negotiating, getting along, trust. Self-esteem is a huge issue," she said. "You look at all those issues, and you see why people don't want to try new things."

Already, grass-roots efforts to provide low-income Mainers with computer access are seeing results.

The Electronic Grange has helped many people improve their job skills to the point that they were able to find work. And the Neighborhood Networks program has helped people such as those who live at Bangor House in Bangor and Ridgewood in Gorham feel more connected with today's wired society.

Mary Hamblen, a 77-year-old resident of the Ridgewood housing development in Gorham, could not possibly afford a computer on her own, she said. But the Neighborhood Networks program has her sitting at a keyboard. This experience, in turn, has helped her improve her self-confidence and allowed her to contact her relatives more frequently, via electronic mail.

Andrew Smith, a 54-year-old Ridgewood resident who uses a wheelchair, has been able to find online health information and is thinking about writing a novel with the computer's word processing program.

Still, despite such examples of success from initiatives like Neighborhood Networks and the Electronic Grange, the information gap remains significant for families like the Marshals. And that message needs to get across to the broader society, which mostly assumes that the problem has been solved, say those who advocate for low-income Mainers.

"These are the silent people. They have no voice," Huot said. "When every middle-class white kid has a computer on their desk, the perception is that there is no problem."


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