A PC In Every Pot

Riverside, Calif., is helping low-income families buy PCs for next to nothing.

by / March 29, 2001
Instead of wringing their collective hands over the growing digital divide in Riverside, Calif., and Riverside County, city and county leaders are putting PCs in homes.

In fact, a program started last August helped approximately 145 low-income households get PCs by Christmas. The Riverside Computer Investment Program (RCIP) is a public/private partnership sponsored by the city, Riverside Countys Credit Union, Jaguar Computers and the Riverside Community On-Line (RCOL) project.

Not Just a Handout

RCOLs overall goal is to transform Riverside into a smart community, said Steve Berry, RCOLs executive director. But because just having a PC isnt enough, RCIP requires applicants to go through a basic computer-training course before obtaining a PC. Three computer centers -- the Riverside Cybrary, the Arlanza Computer Center and the Center for Virtual Research, located at the University of California, Riverside -- train RCIP applicants for free.

RCOL has raised approximately $20,000 to help subsidize qualified low-income families who apply for loans from Riverside Countys Credit Union to purchase the PCs. The subsidy, which is $225 per family, helps keep monthly payments below $20, and, most importantly, the credit union finances the loans at reduced interest rates and waives credit-history requirements to help the families obtain loans, said Berry.

Applicants can purchase either a brand-new computer system or a reconditioned system, and their monthly payments include all taxes, fees and interest plus 90 days worth of bilingual tech support over the telephone.

Families choosing new computer systems get a one-year warranty on parts and labor, and reconditioned systems come with a 90-day warranty on parts and labor. In addition, both options include free Internet access.

Berry said RCIP is targeted to students in public schools who range from nine years old to 17 years old. "We also hold the students accountable to train their brothers, sisters and parents," he added. "Its about workforce development. A lot of these families have businesses, so they can get training on how to run their businesses out of their home."

The program just ordered 35 more computer systems and, ultimately, wants to get 500 PCs into the homes of low-income families.
To qualify for RCIP, applicants must:
* be enrolled in a public school;
* receive the free or reduced school lunch program;
* have a passing GPA or agree to bring up their GPA to a passing level;
* have a good attendance record;
* have been residing in Riverside for a minimum of six months; and
* complete a basic computer course at one of the three computer-training centers.

"No matter how poor these families are or whether theyre first generation or second generation, they realize that their children must have technology to succeed in the future," Berry said. "Thats one of the reasons theyre buying these computers and investing in their kids futures."

The Future Is Now

Lisa Leggettes family received their computer right before Christmas, she said. The mother of three added that the timing was right because her childrens final exams were right around the corner.

"The kids have been able to do their projects and essays over the Christmas break," she said. "My son was able to research some things; he needed some famous quotes. Theyve been able to use the computer for school. They havent been able to do that in the past, and they get better grades."

Perhaps the biggest benefit she has seen has been that her children are proud of what they produce. "Its going to enhance my kids knowledge," she continued, adding that her daughter, who will be entering the 11th grade, has been using the computer to research colleges, find out what to expect from college life and look for scholarships and grants.

Leggette had some familiarity with computers herself from a previous job, but encountered some new programs on the computer. "What I didnt know, I just called one of the kids and they were able to tell me," she said.

Though her daughter probably wont go into the tech world as a career, her son seems headed that way.

"My son, hes more the technical side," she said. "Hes more into taking things apart and putting them back together. My daughter is using the computer more as a tool to see what else is out there and enhance her skills."

Solving the Right Problems

Just as a jewelers loupe reveals a diamonds many facets, a scrutiny of the digital divide reveals its many sides: financial considerations, cultural restraints, techno-phobia and the lack of access to.

Although many believe that getting low-income families any
computer system, even used or slightly outdated, is an excellent way to solve the digital divide, Berry isnt one of them.

"Of the 145 computers weve put in families homes, weve only put out four used PCs," he noted. "People dont want the cast offs. The reality of it is, they shouldnt. Used computers cant run the games kids want to play. Used computers cant run the software [those kids] need for the future."

Besides the unattractiveness of used computer systems, Berry said accountability is another aspect of RCIPs solution.

"We sit down with the parents, and we let them know that this is a community program; that this is funded by the local community; that this is not some government giveaway," he explained. "They are responsible for making their payments, and if they dont make their payments, theyre putting other people at risk [to not be able to participate in the program]. If you hold people accountable, they understand that."

Finding the Funds

Although its tempting to connect the digital divide directly to a lack of financial resources, Berry didnt find that sort of cause-and-effect relationship when RCIP began visiting families due to receive a PC. The families, while undeniably at the low end of the income scale, were not dirt poor.

"They had assets," he said. "They had cars. They had stereos. They had TVs. It wasnt about them not having the money. But Ill tell you what they didnt have: They didnt have the accessibility to credit to get out to the computer store to get the computer. Having a credit union involved takes them from a cash-only basis and brings them into the financial world. Thats what Ive seen; its the accessibility to credit. Its the fact that they dont have access to the same type of financial institutions that you and I have access to. No one is giving them credit cards in the mail."

This was the most difficult obstacle for Leggette.

"For me, personally, it was getting financed and credit being extended without high interest rates," she said. "Its like, OK, wait a minute, thats kind of unreal -- to be paying $80 per month for a computer. I cant afford that out of my family budget at this time."

RCIP helps low-income families establish credit and helps those families with bad credit improve their credit rating, Berry said. Representatives from Riverside Countys Credit Union sat down with Berry shortly after RCIP began and told him that, of the first 20 applications for a computer loan, none would have been approved without RCIPs involvement.

The willingness of Riverside Countys Credit Union to take this risk is a major component of RCIPs success, Berry said, especially given the fact that the credit union, at the beginning, had no idea if the loans were going to get paid off.

"Thats why we are in the situation were in," Berry argued. "Its almost like two different economies here. These two different economies arent merging, but this will help them merge."

For more information on RCOL, contact Steve Berry <sberry@rcol.org> at 909/826-5897.