Politics & Policy

Democrats Failed on Digital Divide, Too

Liberal nostrums do not have an impressive track record.

The Democrats have never seen a problem they didn’t think could be fixed with a government program. And they sometimes discern crises crying out for government solutions where there are none.

Remember the “digital divide”? It was, we heard from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.) in 1998, “the next civil-rights movement.” The unconscionable gap in Internet access between whites and minorities required, of course, a new $2.25 billion annual tax (it was called the “E-rate”) to be levied on telecommunications companies (who naturally passed it along to their customers). Rep. Bobby Rush (D., Ill.) outlined the liberal understanding:

There are millions of youngsters who are struggling right now to become a part of American society, struggling to become productive in the American society, who are fighting without any of the technological advantages that are available to others. These individuals will soon be road kill on the information superhighway because they won’t have access to the kind of technology, access to computers, access to the Internet. They won’t be productive members of society. If in fact this E-rate is diminished, or if this E-rate effort, if it’s derailed then we are really creating two different societies.

The Clinton administration picked up the cudgels too. In 1998, speaking to graduates of MIT, President Clinton lamented, “Today, affluent schools are almost three times as likely to have Internet access in the classroom; white students more than twice as likely as black students to have computers in their homes.” While acknowledging that “the digital divide has begun to narrow,” he warned that “it will not disappear of its own accord.”

Perish the thought. We can’t have problems disappearing of their own accord. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (now there’s an Orwellian name) produced several studies of the problem. A 1997 report on digital “haves and have nots” worried that America faced a “racial ravine.” Though “all racial groups now own more computers than they did in 1994,” the report continued, “Blacks and Hispanics now lag even further behind Whites in their levels of PC-ownership and on-line access.” (Emphasis in original.)

And so the busy bees of the federal government created task forces, imposed taxes and mandates, funded research, and generally played Chicken Little. Flaws in the Commerce Department data were noted immediately. It failed to account for online access at work and school, for example. Besides, the march of technology, which led to decreasing prices, soon made computers affordable for a large majority of Americans anyway, including members of minority groups. A 2005 survey by AOL found that 80 percent of African Americans were online, compared with 88 percent of all Americans, and that 66 percent had high-speed connections, compared with 53 percent of the general population. A 2008 Yankelovich survey found that 90 percent of African American teens had Internet access. If there is any “digital divide” in America today, it is between those over age 76 and those under. Among the older group, only 27 percent are connected to the Internet. Does the Department of Commerce know about this?

Liberals are usually content to believe themselves well-motivated and seldom take any notice of outcomes. So when liberal academics actually study the effects of computers in the classroom, it deserves mention. It’s even more noteworthy when one of the authors of the study is none other than Austan Goolsbee, currently a member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors.

In 2003, Goolsbee and his University of Chicago colleague Jonathan Guryan examined just what the annual $2.25 billion subsidy to schools was achieving. It had, they estimated, advanced the adoption of computers in schools by as much as four years. Or possibly not. “Even without subsidies,” the report acknowledged, “many school districts chose to make Internet investments. It is therefore difficult to distinguish between the effects of the E-rate program alone versus the already strong upward trend in the fraction of schools with Internet access.”

Nevertheless, Goolsbee declared E-rate “a tremendous success” in wiring up the nation’s schools. What he and Guryan did not find, however, was any evidence that Internet connections improved student performance. The study admitted: “The authors looked at test scores for math, reading, and science. Their results showed no evidence that investments in Internet technology had any measurable effect on student achievement.”

There are dozens of reasons that a congressionally designed overhaul of America’s health-care system is a terrible idea. One of those reasons is that liberal nostrums do not have an impressive track record. 

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