Technology Ownership ≠ Information Access: Digital Divide Is Real
By Tita Parham
More people than ever before have access to technology. A 2011 Pew Internet Project survey on digital differences found that 88 percent of American adults had a cellphone and 57 percent a laptop computer. By 2013, the percentage of Americans with some sort of cellphone had risen to 91 percent and 56 percent had a smartphone.
Those statistics ring true in the neighborhood surrounding Summerfield United Methodist Church in Milwaukee, but in the negative.
"From our front steps you can see luxury condominiums, you can see subsidized housing and you can see homeless people," said the Rev. Jennifer Emert, Summerfield pastor. "And we have members from all those different constituencies in our church, so we have folks who don't have access to computers at home."
That's not a surprise, based on the 2011 Pew study. It indicated that a household income of less than $20,000 a year was one of the three "strongest negative predictors for Internet use."
Only 62 percent of adults in the lowest-income bracket households used the Internet, compared with 90 percent of those making $50,000 or more and 97 percent making more than $75,000.
And those higher-income levels are gaining benefits from technology that lower-income adults don't. Another Pew study showed "solid majorities of higher-income Internet users ... purchase products or services online, perform online banking, use the Internet to pay bills."
They're also more likely to search for medical information. "Wealth and health information-seeking go hand-in-hand," study analysts said.
Computer labs at Emert's church and another in Wisconsin are trying to level the technological playing field so people in their communities can bridge that digital divide.
The Summerfield church has two computer labs — one for members and one for guests served through the church's Saturday afternoon meal program.
Jeff Hanson, a student in the Milwaukee School of Engineering a few blocks from the church, was among the founders of Project: Community Computers. Volunteers refurbish the school's old computers so they can be given to local organizations. He also volunteered at the Summerfield meal program. Hanson suggested giving some computers to the church.
Four computers were set up for members and are available any time the church is open. Another four went to the meal program, which just celebrated its third anniversary and serving more than 5,100 people.
Emert says some of the meal guests are homeless, while others are "just having a hard time making ends meet."
"They have really benefited from (the computer lab) because it provides people with very little access to a computer or the Internet the opportunity to check health insurance benefits, do job searches and email friends and family," Emert said.
The church supplements that individual use with instruction on specific uses. One Saturday, a representative of Wisconsin's Medicaid program provided information about enrollment, which meal guests can complete online through the computer lab. Several weeks before a November election, volunteers pointed out information on the state of Wisconsin's website about obtaining identification required for voting.
Robert Blahut, co-director of the meal program, said many Saturday guests have cellphones, but their use is limited.
"You can have a phone and do a lot of those things on the phone," he said, but "a lot of people don't have data plans because they're kind of expensive. They just have basic service."
Other locations around town do have computers and free Internet access, Blahut said, but getting to them can be difficult. The nearest library is 25 blocks away.
Having the computer labs in the neighborhood increases accessibility. "They don't have to be trekking across the city when they need to check email or do things online or even do schoolwork," Emert said.
Meeting real needs
Accessibility is also important for members and guests at Wesley United Methodist Church in Sheboygan, about 60 miles north of Milwaukee.
The church, located in a low-income, transitional neighborhood that's primarily Hispanic, started the lab about two years ago. It is in a house owned by the church used primarily for storage. Members felt it should house some sort of ministry instead, said the Rev. Ann Bullis, pastor. The church contacted Partners for Community Development, a local organization that provides housing and human services for low- and moderate-income families. It also operates a Hispanic center.
Partners gave five used computers to the church, launching the computer lab. Its users, Bullis said, are mostly adults. Some are undocumented, and many don't speak English. Most are referred to the lab through Partners and a local aging and disability center.
They check their email, look for jobs and complete applications online. Teachers coordinated by Partners also offer classes on basic computer and word-processing skills. Tutors help the students learn English.
Classes are held Tuesday and Thursday afternoons during the school year, but if people want to use the lab outside class time, Bullis makes it available.
It's a safe, comfortable place to learn. "This place isn't where the questions are asked," she said. "They're just here to learn."
It's also a place that's meeting real needs.
"We take for granted that everybody knows how to use a computer," Bullis said. "The younger generations learn that in school, but their families don't. They don't have (a computer) in their home. If you go to the library, you have to know how to turn it on. Some don't even know how. ... There isn't any other place in town for them to do this."
A matter of justice
Emert says her church's computer labs aren't saving lives, but they are making people's lives easier.
"It certainly provides people with limited resources an easier access point than they normally would have, which certainly saves them time ... a valuable resource to all of us," she said.
That care for people's quality of life is one reason ministries like computer labs are needed, says the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications.
"In an information-rich, interconnected world, access to information is essential to well-being," he said. "Biblical teaching tells us it is God's intent that all of God's children flourish. If we are to flourish, we must have access to the information necessary to gain knowledge and make decisions."
That's a basic human right, according to Paragraph 162.III.t of the United Methodist Book of Resolutions.
Denying or limiting access to technology and information is in essence a denial of human rights and a justice issue, said the Rev. Liberato Bautista. He is assistant general secretary for United Nations and international affairs at the General Board of Church and Society.
"Knowledge is power," Bautista continued. "A just information society is one where knowledge is shared justly and equitably."
Providing access to technologies like the Internet is also an expression of responsible stewardship, he said. Denying it because of cost or availability not only prohibits people from getting the information they need, but also limits their participation in government and society.
Christians are called to make that just society a reality, Hollon and Bautista agree.
"The church must be concerned about access to technology and the information it carries because we are called to care for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized," Hollon said. "In the 21st century, everyone must have access to the store of the world's knowledge. For Christians, ensuring this access is a matter of faithful discipleship."
Tita Parham is a writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.