Sunday, March 13, 2016

Little Things Mean a Lot

If you are reading this, you have Web-access. And most of us have made digital communications, social media, Web-searches and access to Web-based entertainment/information a routine part of our daily lives. We have tablets, laptops, desktops and/or smart phones. Bandwidth and data plans are rich enough to carry the content and communications we seek.

Likewise, teachers and professors at every level, from institutions public and private, primary to higher education, now routinely post lesson plans, teaching tools, required reading, practice materials and even provide posting sites for student papers online. Yes, even at the elementary school level. To be without those digital links is to be excluded from opportunity and even the basics of education.

But when jobs are scarce, where layoffs have reduced incomes, where welfare is the main source of income, budgets have to be cut. The cost of a digital device good enough to enable meaningful viewability and interactivity added to the monthly cost of digital access (data plans or Web connections) are usually among the first items to be crossed off of a poor family’s budget; many families are never able to provide such elements to their own children.

“With many educators pushing for students to use resources on the Internet with class work, the federal government is now grappling with a stark disparity in access to technology, between students who have high-speed Internet at home and an estimated five million families who are without it and who are struggling to keep up.

“The challenge is felt across the nation. Some students in Coachella, Calif., and Huntsville, Ala., depend on school buses that have free Wi-Fi to complete their homework. The buses are sometimes parked in residential neighborhoods overnight so that children can connect and continue studying. In cities like Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, where as many as one-third of homes do not have broadband, children crowd libraries and fast-food restaurants to use free hot spots.

“The divide is driving action at the federal level. Members of the Federal Communications Commission are expected to vote next month on repurposing a roughly $2 billion-a-year phone subsidy program, known as Lifeline, to include subsidies for broadband services in low-income homes… ‘This is what I call the homework gap, and it is the cruelest part of the digital divide,’ said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the commission who has pushed to overhaul the Lifeline program.” New York Times, February 22nd. Even the cost of a screen big enough to do homework on can be prohibitive.
But these are “entitlements,” which are often strongly opposed by conservatives, both at the state and federal levels. Education budgets, which have frequently been cut, have not remotely kept up with the growth of the number of children now attending public schools.

“‘It’s essential for school and future job opportunity,’ [James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media] said. ‘So it is desperately important that we make broadband affordable for low-income families and minorities, because we can’t be a society of haves and have-nots.’

“Few places better illustrate the challenges faced by students without broadband than McAllen, in South Texas, and the surrounding area in the Rio Grande Valley. Poverty rates in the region are high. In some towns, as many as 40 percent of households have no access to the Internet, among the lowest access rates in the country, according to a 2014 study by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

“Brigida Castro, who lives in a concrete home off a one-lane road in the town of Donna, said the main local Internet provider had told her it could not bring service to her street. Her daughter, Perla, 16, is a junior at a high school in the South Texas Independent School District geared toward directing students into medical professions. The school district has put Wi-Fi on more than 100 school buses to help students who do not have access at home, and Perla relies on school bus rides — nearly three hours a day — to finish homework.” NY Times.
As upward social mobility in the United States continues to collapse, we are dooming millions of young minds to perpetual exclusion from mainstream society. Without the educational tools to compete, many will fall between the cracks, finding their earning power in the shadows of our system or becoming part of a never-ending welfare cycle. Think of the costs that we will bear in coming years because we failed these children when we had a chance to open their doors to a meaningful future. Criminal justice and incarceration. Encouraging illegal activities and scoff-laws. And taxing the social welfare costs to the max. In the long run, it was cost us multiples of what we think we are saving now.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it is more than time for us to invest in ourselves… and particularly in the innocent children who did ask to be born into a nation that is now defined by its economic polarization.

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