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U.S. News
Computer aid for the poor could dry up

Thursday, May 16, 2002

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of 100 civil rights, education, religious and labor groups yesterday launched a "Digital Empowerment Campaign" in a nationwide effort to persuade Congress to save two federal programs aimed at bringing technology to low-income Americans.

The Technology Opportunities Program, or TOP, and the Community Technology Centers, or CTC, program have provided millions of dollars in federal seed money for organizations designed to bridge the "digital divide" between low-income and high-income Americans.

TOP grants have been used to set up voice-activated computer centers for the blind, provide online classes and Internet-based job training for those living in remote areas and boost community policing efforts in low-income urban areas.

CTC money has funded programs in low-income rural and urban communities to provide children and adults with computer access and training. Programs at CTC-funded centers include parent-child computer classes, after-school technology training, career development and adult education.

The programs have developed a reputation as models of public-private partnerships, but President Bush proposes to eliminate them, saying that after the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation has other priorities, such as beefing up defense and security programs. Congress hasn't yet made a final decision about whether to accept or reject Bush's plan to scrap the programs.

In response to Bush's proposal, the "Digital Empowerment Campaign" was initiated by a coalition of 100 groups -- including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the AFL-CIO, the American Library Association, the National Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union -- and has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

The coalition plans to hold events around the country to raise public consciousness about the issue and build support for congressional efforts to restore funding for the programs to its top annual levels -- $45 million for TOP and $65 million for CTC.

The coalition will use its Web site, www.digitalempowerment. org, to disseminate information about the campaign.

"The digital divide is one of the single most important issues that will determine the destiny of the American people," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a prime mover behind the congressional effort to continue funding for the two programs.

"This is not about cutting money. It is about cutting opportunity."

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., who is working with Mikulski and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to restore the programs, cited a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. It showed 14 million Americans in January used the Internet to upgrade job skills, 11 million used it to gather medical data, 9 million used it for major financial or investment decisions and 8 million used it in seeking a new job.

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