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Low-income unemployed in St. Louis lack technological access

Sunday, October 18, 2009 | 5:04 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Laid-off marketing executive Michael Clutts fires up his computer and begins his online search for a new job at eight each morning, a routine that continues with interruptions to attend meals and family matters well into the night.

It's a process Gail Spencer knows well, ever since losing her job as a concierge at a downtown hotel last year after 21 years in the hospitality industry.

But to avail herself of the online functions Clutts accesses countless times a day from the comfort of his home in Ballwin, Spencer must travel from her residence in Hanley Hills to libraries and career development centers, which provide computers and Internet hook-ups.

"(Employers) assume everyone has a computer," Spencer said.

For Spencer and millions of other low-income job-seekers, it is an assumption divorced from reality.

And in a process where computers and Internet access are absolutely essential to identifying and applying for employment opportunities, it is an assumption that thrusts the impoverished job-hunters in the hole.

"This is just another example of the way the poor and the low-income wind up paying more" for services middle and upper class families take for granted, said Washington University social welfare professor Mark Rank, who teaches a course on poverty.

"If you don't have the resources, you're going to wind up exerting a lot more energy to do the same things that those with resources do." Rank said.

Clutts can store his resume, copies of cover letters and other job-related files on his hard-drive.

To retrieve her documents, Spencer must find transportation to a library, wait for a computer to come available and hope the flash drive containing all her data doesn't crash (and heaven forbid she loses the half-ounce device.)

A 2009 study by the Pew Foundation's Internet and American Life Project illustrates the depth of the digital divide.

Pew found that 85 percent of households with an income exceeding $75,000 have broadband service, more than double the 42 percent of households earning less than $30,000 that have Internet service.

"Basically, the distance between the poor and the rich is just getting bigger," said Hiroshi Ono, an assistant professor of industrial sociology at Texas A&M.

Former United Way of Greater St. Louis economist Russ Signorino said the two-edged sword of technology is inadvertently making that distance even wider.

Computers and the Internet, Signorino said, have expanded access to job openings to a level once unimaginable.

For everyone but the poor, that is.

"I can sit at my kitchen table and access thousands of job opportunities just in the St. Louis area," Signorino said, who has been doing exactly that since the United Way eliminated his position this summer.

"Thirty years ago, when I was looking for a job, I couldn't do that. Access is great. The problem is a lot of people don't have the skills or the knowledge to take advantage of that access," said Signorino, who coordinates a program that provides computer and Internet training to low-income residents.

It's a paradox of technology that the old way of finding a job was in many ways far more equitable to the poor, said Laura Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at Santa Clara University.

"Before, people had a cheap way to access information," Robinson said. "They'd pay a quarter for a newspaper, check the want ads, circle the jobs that interested them and for the cost of the stamp, they could send (applications and resumes) on."

Employers, in kind, responded to applications by mail or telephone.

Today, as often as not, the follow-up correspondence arrives via e-mail.

And that is the source of further frustration for Spencer when she can't get to a computing site.

Transportation problems and the absence of a computer in the home, Ranks said, are companion obstacles standing between the poor and meaningful employment.

Rank points out that it is hard enough for low-income urban residents to reach Internet access sites.

But urban dwellers, at least, have some access to public transportation.

Not the rural poor, said Rank, citing a study that determined that 40 percent of the country's rural areas are not served by public transportation.

Compounding the problem, the study also revealed that 57 percent of low-income rural residents lack access to a vehicle in operating condition.

Robinson contends that the technological and sociological arms of the research community are not doing enough to address the issues of both low-income rural and urban job-hunters.

"The people who study these things have laptops, offices, 24/7 access to computers, the luxury of time and unfettered access to resources," Robinson said.

"They don't know what it's like to work at a job where they can't sneak off to check a job listing online, or what it's like to take a bus to a library, wait in line for a computer and then not get the chance" to get on the Internet.

The "Utopian conversation" about the benefits of cyberspace, Robinson added pointedly, "masks just how serious this problem is. And there is no one looking at it."

A research specialist with the Pew Internet and American Life Project predicts that affordable personal computers and laptops and expanded community broadband access won't be a factor if, or when, the digital divide does narrow for low-income job-seekers.

The research specialist, Aaron Smith, instead believes the growing market for "smart phones" with mobile Internet technology will level the playing field.

Pew research, Smith said, has already uncovered "promising" evidence that smart phones are closing some of the information gaps between upper and middle class and lower-income users.

The key, of course, is price.

And unless the cost of high-tech phones and service drops precipitously between now and the time she finds a job, Spencer will continue to haunt the public computers at libraries.

In this day and age, she laments, "I have no other choice."


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