Helping people in poverty get online

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2011 - 3:02 PM

The Great Recession is over — at least technically — but it doesn’t feel that way. This is especially true for the poor, whose ranks swelled to levels not seen in America in 52 years, according to a grim report released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The bureau calculated that poverty rose to 15.1 percent nationally. Minnesota’s poverty rate was 10.8 percent, up from 9.6 percent in 2007-2008.

Beyond the percentages are people — 46.2 million of them in America and 544,000 in Minnesota. Many are homeless and hungry. Given the need for housing and food, it’s hard to think of the Internet as being essential to those in poverty.

Yet online access is a crucial component in seeking employment and educational opportunities that can combat poverty.

So the timing couldn’t be better for Comcast to introduce its new "Internet Essentials" program at 10:30 a.m. Thursday with a launch event at the Neighborhood House in St. Paul. Among the attendees will be Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, as well as St. Paul’s Mayor Chris Coleman and St. Paul School Superintendent Valeria Silva.

The program, available to any of the families of the more than 90,000 students in Comcast’s service area who qualify for free school lunches under the National School Lunch Program, will charge only $9.95 a month for Internet access. The rate isn’t promotional; it won’t change, as long as families qualify, and there will be no activation or equipment rental fees.

Comcast will also give families a voucher to purchase a computer for less than $150 — well below the cost for most consumers.

And Comcast will offer free "digital literacy" training online or in print, and in person with partners such as Neighborhood House, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Hmong American Partnership, the Minneapolis Urban League, and others.

"We want to really transform broadband adoption for low-income families," said Mary Beth Schubert, region vice president for corporate affairs at Comcast, who added that the effort was timed with kids going back to school.

The timing was also a result of the federal government approving Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal in January. As part of the approval process, programs such as Internet Essentials became an essential element in the Obama administration allowing the merger to proceed.

Whatever the motivation for the program, it’s a boost for those trying to help those economically disadvantaged, said Michelle Ness, director of programs and evaluation at Neighborhood House.

"No other company is doing this," she said. "From a nonprofit perspective, it’s enhancing our ability to educate when you can bring business and nonprofit sectors (together) for shared goals."

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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