Technology can bring amazing things to a child’s education, but underneath all of the coding courses, build-it-yourself computer kids and educational robots, there’s a dirty little secret: technology is expensive, and lots of families can’t afford it.

iPad apps are great, if your family or school has the hundreds of dollars for the hardware. The same goes for PCs. Even a relatively cheap Raspberry Pi needs a monitor or a TV to operate, and the adaptor will set you back another few bucks. And then there’s the Internet access to pay for. The result? A digital divide between poor kids, and everyone else.

There are lots of families living in poverty throughout North America and further afield. In the US, 19.9% of children live in poverty, according to the US Census. One in three US citizens living in poverty is a child.

Poverty may not be the same as low income. The National Center for Children in Poverty cites research suggesting that families need around twice the Federal Poverty Level to meet their basic needs.

The US Census says that the Federal poverty level is $16,057 for a household of two, one of whom is a child. For households with two adults and a child, it goes up to $18,769. Not much room for food and heating there, let alone PCs and Internet connections.

In 2011, 8.8% of Canadians – nearly three million people – lived on a low income. Lone parents featured heavily in that mix.

Avoiding a digital divide

STEM education can dramatically increase a child’s future prospects, but parents working two or three jobs to put food on the table don’t have much time or energy to think about a technology education. How do we stop those children falling through the gaps?

A targeted approach is important, says Jennifer Arguello, senior tech advisor at the Kapor Centre for Social Impact. She advises focusing on the most affected groups, which tend to divide along racial lines. The US Census shows black and hispanic families consistently earning significantly less than the median household income averaged across all races for decades.

“One startling statistic is that the median black family makes $32k a year, and the median latino family makes $38k a year,” she points out. “The median annual salary for a tech worker is more than those incomes combined.”

Arguello is getting those figures from the Level Playing Field Institute’s infographic on the subect, which in turn draws data from the US Census Bureau and Dept of Labor Statistics. It shows a clear digital divide between caucasian communities, and communities of colour.

Updated 2013 figures from the US census show black households earning a median $34,598 per year, compared to the $51,939 averaged across all races, and the $58,270 earned by the average white household.

This is why the Kapor Center works mainly with black and latino communities, focused in Oakland and California’s Bay Area. It supports organisations attempting to improve digital literacy among disconnected communities.

Why aren’t schools taking care of these programs? “One problem for computing education for the nation is that the standards proliferating Common Core don’t emphasise computing,” Arguello explains.

Common Core is the American educational initiative dictating what K-12 students should know in English-language arts and mathematics by the end of each grade. The problem is that the creators of the program haven’t factored computing technology into the standards, but instead concentrate on more establish skill sets.

“They are math, science, and more traditional subjects,” Arguello says. “If educators are being held to those standards and they don’t include computing, then the initiatives to go above and beyond may not exist.”

That leaves other organisations to try and redress the growing digital divide. The Level Playing Field Initiative is trying to do that with the Summer Maths and Science Honors Academy (SMASH). It takes kids from low income families of colour over three years on a free STEM education program which includes a five-week summer course.

“You should see how lacklustre these kids are to go back to the schools after that summer course,” Arguello says. “The schools don’t have these classes to offer.”

Most of the SMASH students major in STEM outside the program in school, and 100% of them graduate high school, with almost the same percentage going on to college and university.

“We are talking about a population that is 70% first-time college-goers, so it is a really at-risk population,” she continues.

Bridging the digital divide with mentorship

Other programs seek to combine skills training with real-world business involvement. Hack The Hood teaches young people how to build basic websites, with mentor involvement.

The 15-21 year-olds also visit tech companies to see how it’s done and make contacts there. And then, the organisation connects them with small businesses who need websites creating, building valuable links for young people who will soon be entering the workforce.

Susan Mernit, co-founder of Hack The Hood, explains that the organisation also runs a six-week summer Boot Camp for young people.

“They turn from consumers to producers of technology,” she says, adding that the organisation, currently in Oakland, plans to expand into eight cities in the Bay area next year.

Technology access is key

But digital literacy isn’t the only challenge facing young people from low income families. Basic access is just as much of a problem in the growing digital divide.

“We believe that affordable access has to be prioritised right alongside any curriculum or effort to do any digital literacy training and skills,” says Zach Leverenz, CEO of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit group trying to eliminate the digital divide in the US.

“Relevance is driven by the affordability than it is the opposite way around,” Leverenz says. “Trying to convince someone that the Internet as an activity is relevant without making it an affordable offer, just to bring it into their homes and then have them build their own value propositions is a tough thing to do. So affordability and relevance of skills is a package.”

Driven by the fact that a quarter of US households are without Internet access, EveryoneOn partnered with national and regional ISPs to get cheap deals on Internet connectivity to disadvantaged Americans, ranging from as low as $10 per month.

The organisation also procures refurbished computers with Windows and Microsoft’s Office suite, and partnered with non-profits to offer free digital training.

Even if schools do offer some technology education for children, there’s still a gap, Leverenz says.

“The home connectivity piece is important. The anywhere, anytime learning approach requires access outside the classroom and after school hours,” he explains.

“We care a lot about creating digital learning strategies that are holistic for all students. We feel that it’s important to do that out of school,” Leverenz adds.

The stakes are rising. A disproportionate percentage of kids in poverty are black and latino. Tech jobs could be the way out for many kids in disadvantaged communities, but the US Census says that only 4-5% of the tech workforce are currently from those communities. There’s a big imbalance to redress, and it will take years to make the shift. But the opportunity today lies both in technology training – and in basic technology access.

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