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Dives and the Digital Divide

“Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed”

There is a lot of talk these days about income inequality, though much of it is prompted by the economic stagnation of the middle class, not the plight of the very poor.  What politicians have just discovered, of course, is an ancient problem.  Jesus tells the story of the poor man Lazarus and the Rich Man – Dives in Latin – and uses the metaphor of a great chasm dividing the two in the afterlife, prompted by the economic chasm that Dives was indifferent to in life.  (Luke 16.29-30).  In other words, economic metaphors really matter.

What economists like Thomas Piketty, Emanuel Saez, and Joseph Stiglitz document in weighty books laden with historical data, a New York Times article this week brought home in flesh and blood.  Consider Isabell and Tony Ruiz, two school children in Texas who do their homework in the evening standing or sitting on a crumbling sidewalk outside their elementary school.  They are there painstakingly connecting to the wireless internet connection in the school, slowly downloading assignments on their mother’s old, cracked cell phone. 

Or think about high school student Perla Castro, also in Texas, who spends three hours each day riding on school buses.  There are shorter ways home, but in an attempt to bridge the digital divide the school district has put Wi-Fi on the school buses.  So Brigida tries to take maximum advantage of her connectivity on the bus as there is no internet access at home.

Then there is Yunuen Reyes, a high school senior, who works in a Chinese restaurant after school.  When her shift ends she heads to a fast food restaurant where there is Wi-Fi, or begs a classmate to let her visit so she can use the internet connection at her friend’s home.  “It’s stressful and embarrassing to keep asking my friend,” she says.  “I don’t want to keep bothering her, but I also don’t want my teachers to think I’m making excuses.”

Research has shown that seven in ten teachers now give assignments that require access to the internet.  Yet among children from kindergarten through twelfth grade, a third of households in low income and rural communities lack internet connections.  The Federal Communications Commission will vote next month on a new program aimed at repurposing $2 billion to expand internet access in poor communities. Republican members of the Commission have expressed opposition to the plan which another FCC Commissioner calls a response to “the homework gap.”  Given the political climate in Washington there is no assurance that Isabel, Tony, Perla, or Yunuen will soon get help.

Teachers are caught in their own dilemma.  Assign too much homework requiring internet access and they create challenges for poor children without access.  Limit assignments requiring use of the internet and every child is denied the opportunity to be immersed in technology that will be crucial for success in the future.  Even the most creative, highly motivated teachers face impossible choices. “We try to accommodate those without access in every way we can,” said one teacher.  “But we can’t hold back on our use of technology in the classrooms because we have to prepare our children for the world that is waiting for them.”

The digital divide.  Homework gaps.  Eternal chasms.  Whatever the metaphor, income inequality is not just about partisan positioning.  It’s about the lives of real people, in this case children.  Like Lazarus, they lie at the gate of Dives, or trying to concentrate on a crowded school bus for an hour and a half every morning and every night, “longing to satisfy their hunger” for the opportunity to learn, to compete, to succeed. 

There are those “dressed in purple and fine linen and who feast sumptuously every day” who seem very content to have this great income chasm “fixed” (not repaired, but made permanent) in this world, oblivious or indifferent to Lazarus at the gate.  Even the sight of children on the sidewalk slowly sucking connectivity through the walls of their school at night seems to make little impact.  Pious thought of these children one day embraced by Abraham in eternity is its own sacrilege if that is what comforts callous Dives.  Let us attend, however, to the rest of the tale.  Income divides lead to moral chasms that can never be undone. And yes, those divides are not just metaphors, but judgments.

                         John H. Thomas

                         February 25, 2016

See http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/23/technology/fcc-internet-access-school.html

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