Technology Gap in Impoverished Youth Field

Andrew Hahn
March 1, 1999

Unless you dream fondly of carbon paper, Whiteout and planning without data, you will be concerned about the technology gap between the private and non-profit sector. Visit a youth program and you are likely to see staff banging away on 386s, 486s and old Macs that look like dinosaurs in Steve Jobs' garage.

Today's technology will hit our sector in 3-5 years. That's about the time it takes for cutting edge surplus to seep, broken and out of date, into our undercapitalized field. Talk about an equity challenge!

Powerful desktop computers, sophisticated and friendly software, computerized data relevant to social program and community needs, and skilled technologists. Okay, these things don't save lives in and of themselves. But they sure stabilize a weak organizational infrastructure and free up youth workers' time for face-to-face youth work.

There are some extraordinary technology developments. I especially admire HandsNet's new WebClipper service, which automatically sends into your in-box brief descriptions of content that you specify — and need to do your work — from the best Web sites in the country (
Tom Kingsley of the National Neighborhood Indicators Project (housed in the Urban Institute) cites a wonderful example of community planning aimed at community action. A Camden, N.J., church group used computer-assisted geo-mapping to document a compelling link between housing vacancies and recent crimes. The information was folded into a broader mobilization strategy of community organizing, using the information to pinpoint needs and opportunities that once would have been out of reach of neighborhood groups.

Youth techies dream of using CD-based technology-screening tools to identify at-risk youth and trigger service plans. This is suitable of course only if a young person sits still long enough to participate in a series of questions stored on the CD — questions that have been found to reliably predict a behavior, such as quitting school or getting pregnant.

One daring foundation official who shall go nameless (to allow retreat room) is thinking about buying 140,000 Internet phones with six-by-eight-inch monochrome displays for families on subsidized health insurance. A young parent would be sent Web-based e-mail about her child's well-baby appointment and parenting tips. The cynic might ask, "Why would this work any better than regular voice mail messages?" The optimist responds that the novelty of the technology might motivate some young people to take seriously the messages sent over the medium.

Then there are health databases that monitor costs, one-stop PC-based shopping for job training opportunities, and a significant field of computer-assisted instruction and distance learning.

Heart-warming examples are everywhere in our sector, but these innovations should not obscure the real technology gap. The Center for Human Resources at Brandeis University recently finished a report for DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund where the word "struggling" appears over and over to describe the ability of the youth groups sampled to utilize technology.

Fewer than 40 percent of the computers at local youth-oriented nonprofits are Pentium-based, as reported by the Brandeis team. Worse still, these nonprofits rarely have technology budgets, and less than half provide training on the use of technology for their front-line staff. Ditto for the national or regional intermediaries: very few provide formal institutionalized programs for their affiliates on how to use, integrate and support technology.
Many grantmakers are struggling to figure out ways to address this state of affairs. The U.S. Department of Commerce has been a leader. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has made technology one of its cross-cutting themes. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund supports the "circuit riders," a group of roving experts devoted to assisting the non-profit community. Many other foundations are concluding internal studies and surely will become more energetic in addressing these issues.

The private sector has learned how to use technology to work smarter. I am afraid that "" will be a laggard in today's soaring market for technology until enough resources are thrown our way.

Hahn, Andrew. "Technology Gap in Impoverished Youth Field." Youth Today, March 1999, p. 54.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.