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Jewish World Review June 5, 2000 / 2 Sivan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Dollars down the
'digital divide' drain

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
THREE OR FOUR DECADES AGO, debates about government's proper role tended to revolve around questions like: Should the government be the employer of last resort; should the government provide retirement income for everyone over age 65; and should the government provide subsidized insurance for people who live in flood plains?

But in the Clinton administration, the busy gnomes of the executive branch have been spending their time addressing problems that really don't exist at all.

Take the pay gap. The Clinton administration thinks it has found new evidence of disparate pay for men and women -- this time, in the high-tech field. An earnest number cruncher on the president's Council of Economic Advisors claims that women in the information technology field earn 12 percent less than men after controlling for education level, age and occupation. The president has accordingly proposed to add $20 million to the already requested $27 million for an Equal Pay Initiative.

Now, even if this pay gap were real, anyone who thinks that spending another $20 million in taxpayer funds is going to fix it is in serious need of a vacation. Twenty-million dollars is what the Department of Health and Human Services spends on Windex every year.

But the problem does not exist. As the Pacific Research Institute and the Independent Women's Forum have tirelessly explained, the pay gap between women and men is not the result of discrimination, it is the result of choices freely made by women. Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth show that women between the ages of 27 and 33 who are childless earn 98 percent of what men earn. The PRI adds that women in engineering and computer science earn 99 percent of men's earnings. Where gaps begin to show up is when women choose to withdraw temporarily from the labor force or work part-time in order to raise children.

Still, the administration proposes a total of $47 million to add another program to the groaning board of federal programs that already address this nonexistent high-tech wage gap. These funds, if passed, will join the cornucopia of federal programs that already exist. There's the NASA's Women in Science and Engineering program, the EPA's outreach to women scientists and engineers, the Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education run by the National Science Foundation, and a similar program run by the National Institutes of Health.

But the money flushed down the drain to equalize the earnings of men and women is a proverbial drop in the bucket compared with the vast sums being shoveled into everybody's favorite new problem: The Digital Divide.

The DD is supposedly the huge gap in computer use and literacy between whites and minorities. The Clinton administration proposes to spend $2.4 billion to "slam shut the digital divide." And the leaders of Microsoft, AOL and other computer giants have taken on the DD as a major philanthropic effort.

But as Eric Cohen points out in The Weekly Standard, the gap in computer ownership between whites and blacks is closing, not expanding. It is true that whites are more likely to use and own computers at every income level than blacks. But a) it isn't at all clear that this difference arises from discrimination, and b) it also is not clear that time spent in front of the computer translates into better performance in school or in life.

But here's a statistic Cohen unearthed that neither Clinton nor the compliant leaders of the cyberworld acknowledge: "The divergence between single-parent and two-parent households (in computer ownership) is striking -- 61.8 percent of married couples with children own computers, while only 31.7 percent of female-headed households do." And black families with two parents are four times as likely to own computers as single-parent families.

The real digital divide is between those black families (69.2 percent) that are single-parent and female-headed, and everybody else. "Technological segregation and computer "apartheid" do not enter into it, despite the overheated rhetoric of the would-be philanthropists.

Now the disadvantage that single-parent families cause children is a serious problem. And if the Clinton administration and the leaders of the high-tech world attempted to address it, some good might even be done. As it is, spending money to close the digital divide is a waste.


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