Clinton Condemns "Digital Divide" in America

(June 8, 1998)  President Bill Clinton delivered an address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday in which he condemned the racial "digital divide" in America, and re-affirmed his support for the "e-rate" subsidy for school and library computer networking, Internet access, and phone service.   See, Complete Text of Clinton Speech.

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The speech came just as the FCC program which lies behind the Clinton/Gore promise to connect every classroom to the Internet by the year 2000 appeared about to be drastically reformed under pressure from the Congress.

The schools and libraries program, or "r-rate," is run by the Federal Communications Commssion, and its Schools and Libraries Corporation.   The FCC plans to spend $2.2 Billion raised from charges to telephone users on their monthy bills to fund the "e-rate" subsidies.   At M.I.T., Clinton curiously referred to the size of the program as "a billion or so a year," perhaps in error, or perhaps signalling that the program would be scaled back.

Digital Divide

"[T]oday, 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,"  said President Clinton.  "We can extend opportunity to all Americans or leave many behind. We can erase lines of inequity or etch them indelibly."

Also speaking on Friday on the same subject, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) suggested that inner city youth risked becoming "road kill on the information superhighway."  See, Transcript of Press Conference.

Clinton said:

"We know from hard experience that unequal education hardens into unequal prospects. We know the Information Age will accelerate this trend. The three fastest growing careers in America are all in computer related fields, offering far more than average pay. Happily, the digital divide has begun to narrow, but it will not disappear of its own accord. History teaches us that even as new technologies create growth and new opportunity, they can heighten economic inequalities and sharpen social divisions. That is, after all, exactly what happened with the mechanization of agriculture and in the Industrial Revolution.

As we move into the Information Age we have it within our power to avoid these developments. We can reap the growth that comes from revolutionary technologies and use them to eliminate, not to widen, the disparities that exist. But until every child has a computer in the classroom and a teacher well-trained to help, until every student has the skills to tap the enormous resources of the Internet, until every high-tech company can find skilled workers to fill its high-wage jobs, America will miss the full promise of the Information Age."

Schools and Libraries Corporation

President Clinton also discussed the schools and libraries subsidy program.

But it is not enough to connect the classrooms. The services have to be accessed. You may have heard recently about something called the e-rate. It's the most crucial initiative we've launched to help connect our schools, our libraries, and our rural health centers to the Internet. Now some businesses have called on Congress to repeal the initiative. They say our nation cannot afford to provide discounts to these institutions of learning and health by raising a billion dollars or so a year from service charges on telecommunications companies -- something that was agreed to in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both Houses.

I say we cannot afford not to have an e-rate. Thousands of poor schools and libraries and rural health centers are in desperate need of discounts. If we really believed that we all belong in the Information Age, then, at this sunlit moment of prosperity, we can't leave anyone behind in the dark.

Every one of you who understands this I urge to support the e-rate. Every one of you here who came from a poor inner-city neighborhood, who came from a small rural school district, who came perhaps from another country where this was just a distant dream, you know that there are poor children now who may never have a chance to go to MIT unless someone reaches out and gives them this kind of opportunity. Every child in America deserves the chance to participate in the information revolution.

In addition to providing subsidies for inner city schools, the schools and libraries program would also provide support for wealthy suburban and private schools, although at a lower rate.  For example, Sidwell Friends, a posh private school for the children of Washington DC's power elite, has submitted an application to be subsidized for 40% of the cost of SLC covered items to upgrade its already stellar computer network.

Related Page: Schools and Libraries Corporation Summary Page.