FYI From Dallas (fwd)

Anitra Freeman (anitra@speakeasy.org)
Tue, 8 Jun 1999 07:21:58 -0700 (PDT)


An article posted to StreetWrites from a member in Dallas Texas.

---------- Forwarded message ----------

Online war on poverty

Groups that assist the poor enlist latest technology 

06/08/99

By Chris Kelley / The Dallas Morning News

Last year, the New York-based Welfare Law Center launched an e-mail listserv 
for 80 low-income groups across the nation. The listserv, which seeks to help 
community-based groups keep up with state-to-state variations in welfare 
reform laws, has now grown to include 150 groups.

Last month, Second Harvest, an umbrella organization for 200 food banks, 
announced a program that lets online customers of NetGrocer donate food, 
diapers and other items. In the first few weeks, 172 shoppers donated about 
$7,200 worth of products.

Every day, the Housing Crisis Center of Dallas receives up to 26 hits on its 
Web page - people looking for help with eviction notices, landlord disputes 
and emergency housing. 

"People are using our site, and they are getting help," says center founder 
Dorothy Masterson.

Across the nation, technology is being used successfully to wage war against 
one of society's age-old scourges: poverty. Social service agencies, 
community groups and local governments are using the Internet in a drive to 
better the lives of the poor.

With one in five Americans and one in four Texans living in poverty, 
advocates say their new electronic tools - listservs, Web pages and 
secure-transaction software, to name the most common - are making a 
difference against what some see as a phantom menace in a digital age.

"The Internet is helping groups with effective advocacy around legislative 
issues, in reaching out to those who need services, in getting out their 
stories directly to people rather than being filtered through the media," 
says Dirk Slater of the Welfare Law Center, which lobbies for the needy.

Most poverty-fighting Web sites seek to educate the public on issues ranging 
from hunger relief to low-income housing, and many provide information for 
those who need or want help.

A few others provide opportunities for those with the means to directly 
deliver goods and services to those less fortunate. Still others, notably 
user groups, offer chat rooms for the homeless and other economically 
disadvantaged people as a sort of online therapy.

Promising programs

Just how effective these Internet-based poverty-fighting efforts are, no one 
knows for certain. The trend is too new for documented results. But anecdotal 
evidence suggests that such programs, at a minimum, are promising, if not 
productive.

Consider Mr. Slater's efforts at the Welfare Law Center. Hired a year ago 
with the job title "circuit rider," he travels the country like an itinerant 
preacher of a century ago.

Armed with a laptop and how-to manuals, "I evangelize about technology and 
its use by nonprofits to be more effective advocates on the issue of welfare 
reform."

He plans by year-end to conduct eight to 12 workshops with assistance groups 
on how to set up e-mail listservs and Web pages. A year ago, about 20 groups 
affiliated with the Welfare Law Center had Web sites. Now 50 do.

"I'm online constantly," says Mr. Slater, 34.

Because welfare reform laws vary by state, such links between groups are 
invaluable. A proposed law in Massachusetts, for example, could provide just 
the needed compromise for Oregon's welfare reform program.

Mr. Slater's biggest challenge: Convincing community organizers that wired 
technology and personal relationships - the preferred mode of working with 
the poor - are not mutually exclusive.

"Most organizers thrive on personal relations," Mr. Slater says. "They see 
technology as something that keeps them from doing that. I try to get them to 
see that technology actually increases their capacity to develop personal 
relationships by using it to turn people out for an event, to be responsible 
to their members' needs."

Another big problem is technical assistance. Too often, new users of 
technology don't get enough proper training - a common problem everywhere but 
often exacerbated in a field where professionals and volunteers already feel 
that they must swim against the tide.

Ease and convenience are the passwords for Second Harvest's Click to Give 
food donation program. It is similar to familiar electronic charity efforts 
such as the American Red Cross' Donate Now button on its Web page.

Using electronic commerce protocol, Click to Give allows users to click on 
food packages between $50 and $375 that feed a family of one, two or four for 
a week or a month. Three baby packages, ranging from $15 to $25, are also 
offered. In addition to food, daily provisions such as personal care 
products, medicine and cleaning supplies are featured, too.

For Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief organization, Click to 
Give reaches a new market - Internet shoppers - and represents a fundamental 
change in its collection strategy: using e-commerce to request the items food 
banks need most, spokeswoman Carole Gifford says.

"People will give if they understand this terrible problem of hunger in our 
country," she says. "People can connect to the idea of feeding a family for a 
week or taking care of a baby's needs for a month. It is providing help in a 
matter of seconds."

Working site

Another need for the poor is safe, decent and affordable housing.

One telling statistic from the Web page of the Housing Crisis Center of 
Dallas, which has been up for about 18 months: The most common time of day 
people visit the Web site is 3 p.m. - meaning "people are looking at it from 
work," Ms. Masterson says.

"People are using it. It has all the laws, what you need to do if you're 
having tenant-landlord problems, if you can't get repairs, if you are being 
evicted," she says.

While many poverty-fighting Web sites offer the needy help, they also 
publicize ways they could use assistance.

Online for only a few weeks, Fort Worth's Union Gospel Mission Web page 
recruits volunteers (chapel service preacher, car mechanic, data entry 
assistant), lists current needs (commercial vacuums, lice treatment, baby 
beds with mattresses) and even spells out programs that the mission needs 
money to fund (job placement counselor, $30,000; substance abuse counselor, 
$30,000; on-site GED instructor, $18,000).

"We receive no public money," says Don Schisler, mission president. "We 
generate some of our income. But the rest comes from the community. If you 
read our Web site and feel convicted, you can fill out the form we have and 
send us what you feel called to give. We seek and welcome others to be 
involved to help the homeless through Christ."

Seeking solace

So just how helpful is the Internet for the poor themselves?

At the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library in downtown Dallas, many homeless seek 
solace via the Internet. It is the most popular local location for free 
computer use. The library offers 12 computers equipped with Net access in its 
lobby-level On-Line Center and 21 Internet-equipped computers in its newly 
renovated fifth-floor Business & Technology section.

The city's 22 branch libraries have an average of eight to 10 computers, each 
with Internet access. The computers are available to any user on a first-come 
basis. A 20-minute time limit is imposed when others are waiting to use 
Internet-equipped terminals, but there is no time restriction otherwise, says 
libraries spokeswoman Jan Gifford.

Jon Jonson, 47 and homeless for the last year and a half, says he spends 
hours online at the downtown branch every day, both as therapy and, he 
acknowledges, as a drug.

"I'm always in chat rooms," he says. "I talk to people all over the world. I 
know more about Northern Ireland . . . Belgium, London and Liverpool. I'm 
hooked on the Internet. I couldn't live without it, I don't think."

While some homeless use the Internet to scout out services, Mr. Jonson says 
he does not go online to hunt for jobs or housing or opportunities that would 
help him get off the street.

"The kind of jobs you find on the Internet are not the kind most of us are 
qualified for," he says. "We're not exactly brain surgeons living in the 
shelters."

As for the future role of the Internet in eradicating poverty, expert 
opinions are mixed.

"Potentially, there is a role," says Dr. Paul Jargowsky, a professor at the 
University of Texas at Dallas and a leading scholar on poverty. If equipment 
and skills were provided to allow the poor to work from home, "you can 
imagine that workplaces could be structured in such a way that you could do 
typing at home and it goes right off to the company."

But that remains a distant vision, he says. "What I think the Internet and 
related developments have done so far are contribute to the widening 
inequality because of the very different levels of technical sophistication 
that people have," he says.

Others are much more optimistic about high technology's role in fighting 
poverty.

Craig Smith, an expert on trends in U.S. philanthropy and director of the New 
York-based Conference Board's Digital Partnerships Program, says the age now 
dawning will no longer divide the world so sharply.

In the current age, human capital - people's skills and capacities - is what 
counts the most, and computers, whose costs are dropping, can help the 
undereducated acquire needed skills, he argues. Fed by the Internet's global 
flow of information, computers could be among the most powerful social 
equalizers of human history, he says.

He cites ideas for how technology can be tied to developing jobs in the inner 
city, integrating social services for welfare recipients, promoting small 
businesses among the poor and enhancing computer literacy among the 
"information have-nots."

"The digital revolution is really about eliminating poverty," he says.

[end forward]

Write On!
/ Anitra L. Freeman /
"Never doubt that a small group of imperfect people can improve the
world--indeed they are the only ones who ever have." Not Margaret Mead