The Matthew Effect, the Digital Divide and the American Dream

Jonna Lian Pearson (bio)
Colorado State University


The American Dream is the dream that life should be better, richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. In the United States, however, geographical space is racialized so that residential location and community carry a racial identity that leads to uneven distribution, isolation, and clustered, concentrated and centralized space, or hyper-segregation, for many African Americans and Hispanic Americans in the country. Never more applicable than in today’s economic situation, this disparity may affect American’s dreams for success. Some argue that as the availability and ease of use of computer technology broadens, inequality decreases. The rapid pace of technological innovation and social adaptation, however, outpaces the rate of access of African Americans and Hispanic Americans. This qualitative study looks at how the digital divide substantiates the idea of “the rich get rich and the poor stay poor” and how this affects the American Dream of African Americans and Hispanic Americans.


The American Dream has been defined as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position" (Adams, 1931). The foundation of the American Dream could come from the United States’ Declaration of Independence, where our founding fathers: '"...held certain truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

In the United States, however, geographical space is racialized so that residential location and community carry a "racial identity" (Calmore, 1995). This leads to uneven distribution, isolation, and clustered, concentrated and centralized space, or hyper-segregation, for many African Americans and Hispanic Americans (Massey & Denton, 1993). The impact of hyper-segregation is unequal allocation of resources of all kinds such as income, wealth and education, and decades of discrimination can be expected to prevent African Americans and Hispanic Americans from accumulating wealth to the same degree as white Americans. Never more applicable than in today’s economic situation, this disparity may affect American's dreams for success.

Some argue that as the availability and ease of use of computer technology broadens, inequality decreases. The United States Department of Commerce found that "all ethnic groups experienced comparable increases in computer" ownership in 2000 (U.S. Dept. of Commerce, 2000). For example, 42.1 percent of American households had home computers in 1994 as compared with 51 percent in 2000. During this same period, African Americans and Hispanic Americans had starkly lower computer ownership rates than Asian Americans and whites. At lower levels of income, the disparity among demographic groups shrank significantly, but still persisted at a much lower interval (76.3 percent for whites and 64.1 percent for African Americans). Significant disparities remain. Access to computers has not broadened sufficiently to decrease inequality of access or access to information. The rapid pace of technological innovation and social adaptation outpaces the rate of access of African Americans and Hispanic Americans (Norris, 2001).

Other people, who find more and various ways to measure inequality, are inflexible about the widening gap. These people tend to ignore various studies based on different survey data and statistical methods that report persistent gaps in access based on race, ethnicity, education and income. The data reveal that a "digital divide" in terms of information technology access is an undeniable reality (Mossberger, Tolbert & Stansbury, 2003). Even as more Americans purchase computers and flock online, most of the disparities that emerged during the 1990s remain (Mossberger et. al., 2003). Still others ponder the question of whether a disparity in computer use, often called the digital divide, is actually a reformulation of old social inequalities. The computer and Internet use was touted as one of the most important communication innovations in history, as a revolution in democratic communication, as communication with a democratizing effect. Mossberger, et. al., (2003), study multiple divides – the access divide (whether the individual has home access, location of the computer and the frequency of use at each location); the skills divide (comprising two indices of skill including technical competence and information literacy, and preferences for assistance and attitudes regarding public access); the economic opportunity divide (beliefs about computers and economic advancement and attitudes and experiences for online job search and taking a course online); the democratic divide (attitudes and experiences regarding Internet use for voting, registering to vote, looking up government information, looking up political information, and participating in an electronic town meeting). An often overlooked divide, the content divide (determining not all ideas and interpretations of messages and information are homogenous), is overlooked but also important. The findings of Mossberger et. al. (2003) indicate (1) disparities by income, education, race, ethnicity and age, (2) disparities that mirror the access divide; poor and old less interested in learning skill, (3) lack of computer skills, reading and math for economic mobility and opportunity, and (4) continued or increased disparities based on education, income, interest (measured by previous participation).

Sustaining human variables (or inequalities) may not have allowed the product to live up to the fanfare. According to Mossberger et. al. (2003) the role of technology should not be viewed in isolation from other challenges to full participation in society. Technology has replicated, and in some cases exacerbated, long-standing inequalities. These authors say computers and Internet access will not remedy problems of racism, segregation, unequal education, unequal political participation, and economic inequality. They represent one dimension of the problem of providing equal opportunity in a democratic society (Mossberger et. al., 2003). Studies of the divide that are an attempt to understand the sub-stellar effect of computer technology for the masses continue to point to the United States "caste system" as a predominant reason for the deflated panacea of the technology. According to van Dijk (2005), divides are byproducts of old inequalities, digital technology is intensifying inequalities, and new inequalities are appearing.

From the Marxian and Weberian traditions come concerns about power and inequality in access to the technology while a structural functionalism argument would suggest inequality of Internet and computer use is reproduction. The Matthew Effect suggests the digital divide is a newer example of the greatest benefits accruing to high-SES people who use their resources to employ the new technology sooner and more productively (Robinson, DiMaggio & Hargittai, 2003).

Access to wealth and privilege, generally related to race and ethnicity, provides access to all the best possible scenarios in life. Does the absence of wealth and privilege and a racial category other than white, carry a stigma for African Americans and Hispanic Americans that opens them to divides that maintain their disadvantaged status? Does fulfillment of the American Dream become a daunting possibility? A colleague presents this scenario to his classes: You work with a group of youngsters who are in the lower socioeconomic strata a city. Many of the young men dream about becoming basketball players. The slim chances of making the NBA are legendary. Do you spare the young men the absurdity of their dream by speaking the truth about their chances to play in the NBA, or do you protect and shine on their dream?

Other studies also appear to uphold the existence of inequalities based on access and use of computer technology. The Pew Internet and American Life Project sponsored a demographic study of Internet access and use in 2003 (Lenhart, 2003). The study also showed increased access for every demographic group, yet the size of the gap between most groups remained the same, a larger percentage of African Americans and Hispanic Americans remained offline as compared to whites, a gap in Internet use still existed for African Americans at high-income levels, and African Americans and Hispanic Americans were less likely to go online than whites. According to Lenhart (2003), being white is a strong predictor of whether a person is online when controlling for all other demographic variables. A 2005 Pew Project showed that 57 percent of African Americans go online compared to 70 percent of whites (Fox, 2005). The study also showed that the groups that lagged in Internet access also lagged in access speeds (Fox, 2005).

The digital divide, therefore, is not closing; further, divides in use, access and skill involving computer technology have increased discrimination and limited the economic progress of a large majority of African American and Hispanic American populations (Baynes, 2006). As a result of discrimination, many African Americans and Hispanic Americans are underutilized in the economy and decades of discrimination also have prevented African Americans and Hispanic Americans from accumulating wealth to the same degree as white Americans (Baynes, 2006). Disparities exist in income, poverty status and wealth among African Americans, Hispanic Americans and whites: The percentage of African Americans earning more than $50,000 annually is 30 percent while 40 percent of whites earn more than $50,000, African Americans and Hispanic Americans earn approximately 70 percent of the income that white Americans earn, and in terms of wealth, African American households have a median net worth of $7,500, Hispanic American households have a net worth of $9,750, and whites have a net worth $79,400 (Baynes, 2006).

Consider: If one assumes technology to be an answer to progress, yet disparity such as the digital divide is prevalent, can African Americans and Hispanic Americans "hew a stone of hope from a mountain of despair" (Calmore, 1995) or is the Matthew Effect (the rich get rich and the poor stay poor) the operative maxim with an end to the American Dream?

Problem and Hypothesis

The stakes are high. In other words: (a) categorical inequalities in society cause an unequal distribution of resources (Matthew Effect) and an unequal distribution of resources causes unequal access to computer technology (digital divide), and (b) unequal access to computer technology (digital divide) brings about unequal participation in society (Matthew Effect), then (c) unequal participation in society (Matthew Effect) reinforces categorical inequalities and unequal distributions of resources (unfulfilled American Dream). The research assumes a+b=c. While the problem, as written, may appear to be only a class/wealth issue, in this study, embedded in the nature of inequality is the idea that race, class and gender are multiplicative inequalities. To be African American or Hispanic American, an issue of race inequality, also means, quite often, to be both poor and unequal in a patriarchic society of white, middle-class men. For instance, if African Americans and Hispanic Americans can manage access to computer technology, they manage to enter the world of the Internet that is white, male, and hegemonic. This research studies the following hypothesis:

• Hypothesis - If categorical inequalities in society cause an unequal distribution of resources and an unequal distribution of resources causes unequal access to computer technology, then continued unequal participation in society and categorical inequalities should hamper idealization of the American Dream.

The research is conducted to assess:
• If categorical inequalities in society cause an unequal distribution of resources (Matthew Effect) and an unequal distribution of resources causes unequal access to computer technology (digital divide)
• If unequal access to computer technology (digital divide) brings about unequal participation in society (Matthew Effect)
• If unequal participation in society (Matthew Effect) reinforces categorical inequalities and unequal distributions of resources (unfulfilled American Dream).

Literature Review

What are the stakes of unequal culture, power and ownership in relation to information and communication technology? The more information and communication technology are immersed in society and pervade everyday life, the more they become attached to all existing social divisions. In the information and network society, social divisions are even more critical issues because they are characterized by differential information and communication skills as well as differential content according to race, class and gender that could lead to an increase in unequal positions in society. Several arguments in the literature speak to the central hypothesis of this research.

Digital Divide. Thus, the digital divide separates those who have access to and skills and cultural knowledge for using this technology and its content from those who do not. This causes a Matthew Effect where those who previously had access continue to benefit from this access and those who do not fall farther behind. This effect may be seen as a social and political problem, not a technological one, but it speaks to information inequality. The digital divide is seen to be deepening where it has stopped widening; often with material access, still differences in skills and usage access cause relative inequality (Wellman & Berkowitz, 1988). Divides can be seen as byproducts of old inequalities, yet digital technology is intensifying inequalities and new inequalities are appearing. The divides deepen along gaps such as:

• usage – the result of social and cultural differentiation, rising socio-economic inequalities, commercialization
• type of access – differentiation in motivational, material, skills access and usage access
• personal categories – age or generation, sex or gender, intelligence, cleverness, personality
• positional categories – including those encompassing labor, household relationships, city/state/area, and education
• technological characteristics - complexity, expense, network effects, hegemony
• technological properties (content) – approachability, usability, culture, language, information need, hegemony

Although the gaps overlap, conjoin and can be multiplicative, most of the gaps can be associated with divides related to or the result of education differentials or personality variances that may be colored by education type. Geographical isolation leads to educational segregation, no doubt, where continued disparities in income and class are readily seen. According to Scott and Leonhardt (2005) in a New York Times article, the indicators of economic class revolve around four elements: education, income, occupation and wealth. It is said that:

• Receiving a higher education can foster class mobility.
• Income and wealth are often by-products of one's birth.
• Parents who are wealthy and have high income pass that
bounty on to their children.
• Unlike income and wealth, education is one of the factors over which an individual
has some control.

Many see a widening gap between the education of the rich and the poor. This precludes participation in the New Economy and its technological advances as employees, consumers, or entrepreneurs (Baynes, 2006). Because more white children will grow up technologically savvy, another generation of African Americans and Hispanic Americans is apt to remain at the bottom of the barrel as citizens, consumers and entrepreneurs in the new technological era.

The Matthew Effect. The Matthew Effect itself speaks to the rise of usage gaps and their basis in current societal and technological tendencies of differentiation (Merton, 1968). It says those already having the most resources and best positions in society also take the most advantage of every new resource, such as the possession and use of new technology. It is related to the principle of "the rich get rich and the poor get poorer." The concept is derived from an expression in the Biblical Gospel of Matthew 25:29 -- “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him" (New International Version Bible, 2001), or "Those who have much will get more, and they will have much more than they need. But those who do not have much will have everything taken away from them" (New Century Version Bible, 2003). This is the epitome of the digital divide.

Essentially, the Matthew Effect says those who already have a head start in possessing particular resources benefit more from a new resource than those who are behind and already have some disadvantage. In the case of information and communication technology, the existing possessions are the material, mental, temporal, social and cultural resources, and the new resource is the potential value of having and using computers and networks. As the diffusion of computer technology into the social system increases, segments of the population with higher socio-economic status tend to acquire this technology at a faster rate than the lower status segments. The assumption the divide is endemic to new information technology is inherently flawed, given any technology, information technology in particular, likely fostered divides. This theory is similar to the knowledge gap (Tichenor, Donahue & Olien, 1970). The characteristics of computer technology - complexity, expense, multiple functions – increase the probability that use of the technology will diverge among different categories, sections, and classes of the population and produce more or less structural usage gaps. While education is a driving force in access and current school facilities and teacher skills are often inadequate, in this realm, material and mental resources are seen as less important for usage access than temporal, social, and cultural resources, lifestyles included, because much of the access does not primarily happen at school, but at home. In homes where disadvantage is prevalent, access also becomes a disadvantage and traditional scenarios of unequal privilege endure. The Matthew Effect also encompasses a usage gap that is about unequal practices and applications, action or behavior in particular contexts, including knowledge and information (van Dijk, 2005).

Inequality is a matter of categorical differences between groups of people where prime units of analysis are not individuals but the positions of individuals and the relationships between them (Tilly, 1999). According to Tilly (1999), large, significant inequalities in advantages among human beings correspond mainly to categorical differences such as black/white, male/female, citizen/foreigner, or Muslim/Jew rather than to individual differences in attributes, propensities, or performances. The point of departure of this notion of inequality is neither the essences of individuals nor the essences of particular collectives or systems (e.g., capitalism, patriarchy) but the bonds, relationships, interactions, and transactions clump into social ties, social ties concentrate into networks, and existing networks constrain solutions of organizational problems that clarify the creation, maintenance and change of categorical inequality.

The Stakes. So, what about the American Dream? With life variables such as the digital divide, as a manifestation of the Matthew Effect, do you explain the constraints of the plan to play basketball in the NBA or do you ignore the variables and assume talent is the key? Talent often can override socioeconomics and life chances. But, the more rational assessment says that participation or exclusion from society in the labor market, education, politics, culture, social relationships, spatial arrangements, and institutions such as citizenship and social security or health provisions will become (or remain) second-class citizens. The ideology of computer communication use was to generate a wealth of information while overcoming boundaries of gender, race, class --- to be used by both dominant societal powers and by individuals struggling for democratization and empowerment for creating a more egalitarian society, and for empowering individuals and groups disenfranchised and without power. Democratization describes a transition to majority-based systems of a civil society with collective and shared interests, purposes and values. As it relates to computer use, however, democratization and democratizing effects ignore the likelihood that technology can be used differently by different groups and individuals in specific contexts. Computer use, therefore, may have anti-democratizing effects.

Can generations of second-class citizens continue to be appeased by the usual distribution of material resources (income and possessions), social resources (relationships), cultural resources (assets and credentials), and mental resources (knowledge and information); or by the usual distribution of capital that is temporal (time to spend on different activities in life), economic (property and money), social (connections and obligations), cultural (training of the mind and body and possession of cultural goods), human (education, qualifications, skills and knowledge), and informational (power, norms and sanctions); or will they continue to settle for the unequal distribution of items?

According to William Julius Wilson (1996), the most disadvantaged minority individuals, crippled by the cumulative effects of race and class subjugation, disproportionately lack the resources to compete effectively in a free and open market. It is the purview of cultural studies to understand the balance of power and to undertake a commitment to a moral evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action (Sardar, 1996). Two major challenges to critical social theory and a radical democratic politics are: (1) how to theorize the dramatic changes in every aspect of life that the new technologies are producing, and (2) how to use the new technologies to promote progressive social change to create a more egalitarian and democratic society than has been the case for the past two centuries marked by rampant industrial/technological development and the seeming victory of market capitalism over its historical opponents (Katsiaficas & Kiros, 1998). Can the dream be deferred?

Research Methods

Forty-seven college students, parents of college students, those presumed to have an interest in higher education and job attainment, and those for whom the American Dream might not reach fruition were asked to participate in this study. Care was taken to include African Americans and Hispanic Americans such that 31of 47 interviewed represented either African American or Hispanic/Latino ethnicity. Respondents were sought from the campus and neighboring areas of Colorado State University through class announcements and posters. Parents and friends were recommended by students who provided telephone numbers of those thought to have an opinion about the topic of discussion. Personal interviews were conducted with those on campus and the surrounding area and telephone interviews were held with those outside of the Denver metropolitan area. Actual respondents included those from different social class structures and both men and women as participants with at least some computer experience and an ability to define the American Dream to broaden the geographic area. All participants were from a demographic area within a 60-mile radius of a major metropolitan city. The criteria for participation in this study were: a minimum age of 18, a college degree or attendance in college, the parent of a child seeking to attend college, a high school senior without either the finances or grades to attend college, at least minimum use of or experience with computer technology, and a working definition of “an” American Dream.

Respondents ranged in age from 22 to 64; were located in Colorado (24), California (8), New York (8), North Carolina (3), Texas (2) and Illinois (2); represented a variety of school majors (journalism, speech, liberal arts, economics, communication, political science, equine science) and employment types (education, business management, sales, medicine, finance); and were somewhat equally distributed between males and females (25 males/22 females). Fourteen respondents considered themselves white; one was Asian American, two were Native American, 15 were Hispanic American, and 15 were African American.

They were asked demographic questions about SES, household income, parents' occupation, parents' education, in what area of the country they attended school before college, and ethnic identification; if they were taught to use computers formally (schooling) or informally (through their own application); and about personal use of computers, barriers to use of computers, and information poverty/usage gaps of computer use. They also were asked their ideas about equality of education, capital and access to jobs and wealth, about their ideas about social indicators and social mobility including their beliefs about the digital divide and barriers to technology and the use of computers for information and communication, and about the Matthew Effect and if there is a way around staying poor because of barriers to technology as well as what, in their opinion, could be done to alleviate the Matthew Effect and to fulfill the American Dream.

A semi-structured ethnographic interview guide was used to collect data. This interview format was selected in an attempt to understand the complex behavior and beliefs of the participants by giving them the freedom to construct their own responses. Because racial and ethnic consciousness springs from a group’s historical and current material circumstances and from their perceptions and cultural understandings of these circumstances, the semi-structured interview provided an indispensable methodological tool to ascertain how ethnic and racial consciousness is formed and changes over time and space. The use of ethnographic methods provides information that cannot be measured using standardized quantitative designs. While the measurement of perceptions, beliefs and attitudes may be somewhat imprecise and less reliable, ethnography uses alternative ways of producing and validating knowledge -- data provided through respondents own words. The interview allowed respondents maximum flexibility in description and explanation and an analytic comparison was selected to analyze the data. The responses were used to compare themes and ideas. Coding was used to pinpoint similar and consecutive ideas. After coding, an analysis was developed whereby references to consistently mentioned variables were measured.

Research Findings

Every person interviewed believed there was a digital divide, and everyone believed the Matthew Effect existed. Many, however, believed the American Dream was still a possibility even with the existence of a digital divide and the Matthew Effect. They explained the reality of the Matthew Effect with the continued existence of the American Dream this way:

• Yes, it seems the Matthew Effect is true, but everyone has to try just in case it can be different.
• I believe in the Matthew Effect, but I can't stop trying to make it in life. Making it may not be the American Dream, but it has to at least mean survival.
• I think you work and do the best you can and you hope for the best, but I think we're born knowing that barring a miracle of sorts, if we weren't born with a silver spoon in our mouths, we probably won't die with one there either. Maybe the possibility of that miracle is the American Dream – that there are possibilities and perhaps a chance.
• We were led to believe that there is a correlation between computer skills and economic opportunity. Perhaps that is the dream. Isn't it true that the more you know the better off you are?
• In my world, there are similarities between the American Dream and "I have a dream...." [Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech]. What it means is "we shall overcome."
• No one wants to provide any one a hand up or a handout. This means that some have to work overtime to see any kind of dream fulfilled, but everyone has a dream.
• The dream is to do better than the previous generation. When this isn’t in any way going to happen, it kills your spirit but you have to keep trying or you’ll have less than nothing.

Most of those interviewed who were white were introduced to computers at an earlier age than their African American and Hispanic American peers. They were introduced either because the technology was used at home and/or the school system taught computer skills than did those who were not white. All, however, acknowledged barriers to computer use such as cost and complexity for themselves, people they know and poorer people such as some people of color. They said:

• A divide exists that is felt in the lack of access to computers and the Internet. In America, this usually is only in the poorer households or in rural communities where the connect technology isn't available yet.
• I'm not sure if the divide exists because blacks and Hispanics don't want to use computers because they are interested in other things, because they are too poor to afford them, because they don't realize the importance of them or because many neighborhood schools that are still predominately segregated don't offer computer classes. Being poor has disadvantages.
• It would appear that older people who didn't grow up with computers don't really see the need to learn about the technology and people without a high school education don't understand you can't really do much without computer education.
• I think there is a divide between women and men, much like the math/science divide that exists between women and men. Women learn as much as they need to know and men seem to feel the need to "master the machine."
• Well, there is skills access, usage access, material access ($$$) and motivation. There is a divide because all of these things are natural divides among the populace.
• There are divides in access that largely have to do with economic opportunity, and there are divides in skills that have to do with economic opportunity. Economic opportunity has to do with inequality and social inequality has to do with access and skills. It all means democracy is only semi-democratic
• You know, behind is behind, if it's not your fault.
• If you have no time to attend school because you have to work to eat, and less time to learn the tricks of the trade to better yourself, of course there is a divide that makes the masses of poor[er] people different.

Women seemed to feel more adamant about the digital divide. They described not only unequal access, but also unequal effects. They said:

• Access to computer training is not equal. Some people have greater access depending on income, racial and gender categories. The wealthy have more access regardless of race or gender, whites have more access because of race that is differentiated by wealth and males have more access than females. If you're a poor, black woman, the effect is no money, therefore no expertise or training to use computers and technology. Talk about a triple inequality....
• We take fewer technology courses, men are the techies. Women may be forced to overcome different interest and learning styles to compete equally for jobs. Boys start playing with computers to play games. The games are action-oriented and war-type games. Most girls have different motivations than killing.
• I think guys start with the computer games, go on to programming and generally get more used to computers than girls. That means then that the guys write the programs, do the teaching and then generally prevail at being excellent with computers.
• Computers make communication non-verbal. That is a guy thing, non-verbal communication.
• It's almost like the Matthew Effect, you start out poor and you stay behind. With computers, government men began the computer technology that we have today and so they know the most about it. It may not be possible for women to command center stage. All the computer corporations are run by men and men dominate the workplace. If you never used a computer until you got to work, men would still dominate because they own the workplace too.
• I think the male dominance in information technology has to do with the idea that technology is math- and science-centered. Everyone knows the stereotypes of men and women when it comes to math and science. Even in entertainment, most of the nerds are men. Remember, women weren't always privy to education.
• If men and women were equal in the way they learned and were taught, we wouldn't have debates about same-sex education.

Solutions to the digital divide and ways around the Matthew Effect were few. None of the respondents believed there was a way around the Matthew Effect other than playing an obvious game of letting those less fortunate or with fewer computer skills and abilities play catch up. All agreed that changes and advancements to technology would not stand still and none believed anyone who could take advancements of technology would wait around. The only "waiting" respondents talked about was waiting until newer technology was introduced to take advantage of the last newest technology such as buying computers with Windows programs at a reduced price because the new Vista program is now available. Approximately 5 percent of the respondents of color suggested that those people who had fewer computer skills and less computer savvy could work extra hard to catch up. Respondents said:

• Inequality is a natural process, and not just because of race. It has to do with natural ability, education, position and funds. I don't think this is new, though, someone has always had access to more, different, or the type of information they get. I think a lot of it has to do with choice.
• There is quality and quantity. Just because you have the technology doesn't mean you have "access" to the same information or networks.
• If you compare information and computer technology to the United States and third World countries, the United States will always be the super power and the leader and I don't think the smaller nations will ever catch up because the US will continue to advance. I know countries and people don't have equal opportunities, but does that mean the US should slow down?
• If computers and networks were free and availability and access were the same for all, you will still have other factors that will make equal skills and abilities impossible just because of people and technology. This doesn't make the possibility of success because you know how to use a computer undemocratic.
• Social inequality is the digital divide and vice versa. Unfortunately, social inequality, like class, is a way of life in America.
• When it comes to money and equality, the lack of money means you may never catch up. Sometimes the harder you work, the more you go down. But, who doesn’t fight when they’re down?

The respondents' clarifications to their belief in the Matthew Effect to explain their belief in the American Dream showed a trend toward the hope for eventual equity. Respondents continued to feel hopeful that although they might not be millionaires, and some not even as rich as their parents, that they would could still achieve success. Success to the respondents was conceptualized as the opportunity to be able to reach as far as their as their hard work and education would let them go. Many acknowledged the need for graduate degrees to achieve this success. Still others understood the concept of networking and place and being able to achieve because of who you know. While they agreed this was not "exactly fair," they said it happened and was accepting as a way of life. Their idea of success was parallel to the concept of the American Dream as defined according to self, not necessarily "for everyone." They said:

• The American Dream is harder to get to today compared with the past but the ideology is still win-win.
• I don't think there can be "an" American Dream; I think there are many American Dreams and I think those doing the dreaming see different realities that manifest the dream.
• I was taught that you measure class by consumption, investment, skill and social capitals. If capital relates to power – economic, political and social, then I guess some people are consistently poor and powerless, but they stay that way only if they don't work hard. You can change the powerless to power with motivation and education.
• I think different people, like different classes, have different dreams. If we are all American, yet multi, then doesn't the dream become multi too?
• There is always the chance to improve your lot in life.
• The dream belongs to the dreamer. We probably dream according to what we know to be true. Dreams would be different for each dreamer whether in terms of color, class, or gender.
• We could be talking a full scale revolution [laugh], but the day has to come sometime when everyone can see the fruits of their labor.
• If I had the money and the power, I wouldn’t believe in equality and equal distribution either, but I won’t say anyone I know will ever give up hope.
• So much for the trickle down theory. I guess equality doesn’t trickle down.
• We’re a very young country just beginning to understand our problems. “Maybe” isn’t an inspiration but maybe one day we’ll learn and believe our own words. [e.g., we can overcome]


The findings indicate a correlation in the belief that societal inequalities are related to belief about the unequal distribution of resources, including computer technology. The findings also give credence to the idea that perceived unequal distribution of resources equals perceived unequal participation in society. What the findings do not show is the fact that inequality gives way to a dismissal of the idea that one can attain the American Dream. We do not tell the NBA hopefuls that their dream is largely unattainable for the majority of them. Respondents voiced hope in the American Dream.

The question becomes, how long can unequal access and inequality continue to manifest themselves in the belief that there is still hope? While it is a positive that the dream does not appear to be unrealistic for these respondents, it is clear that the dream, deferred or changed because of social inequities, is neither satisfactory nor an American Dream.

In the movie Forrest Gump (1994), Gump says," My momma always said that life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." Perrucci and Wysong in their book The New Class Society : Goodbye American Dream? (2008) say a long chain of life experiences that produce patterns of predictable hardship and limited opportunities are powerfully shaped by social-class location that constrains opportunities. Class structure constrains the lives of some people and confers numerous advantages and opportunities on others. Hence, the Matthew Effect. What we are seeing, however, is not a temporary aberration that will soon be put right but a fundamental shift in the distribution of economic and political power that constitutes the class structure (Perrucci and Wysong, 2008). Could the respondents in this study who believe in the Matthew Effect and a parallel digital divide but cannot deny the fulfillment of the American Dream believe, unwittingly, that expectations of sweet chocolates beats predictable class-based disappointment and hardships or makes them easier to bare (Perrucci and Wysong, 2008)? Do they not know that we have a structured system of unequal rewards that provides enormous advantages to a small percentage of people in the United States at the expense of the overwhelming majority (Perrucci and Wysong, 2008)? The digital divide is tantamount to the Matthew Effect; communication and information remains in the hands of the few, and the American Dream, because of the digital divide and the Matthew Effect, is unrealistic.

It is amazing that those people interviewed, especially those minorities (marginalized and segregated) who talked to me, still feel honor bound to a belief in the American Dream. One might expect them to be disgruntled about a dream that appears promised but, for many, is never actualized. Perhaps the fault lies in the asking. In this study, the American Dream is defined as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position." This definition may indicate more a personal idea of better, richer and capable than the idea of capability in terms of group (race and ethnicity) access, group economics, and group class. Respondents talked about race and ethnicity in terms of class and inequality, for instance, but appeared to view the American Dream in more individual terms in relationship to success, and wealth and class. Respondents spoke about cultural differences, however, and used cultural terminology in their answers, but the dream may be individual with the hope for it to extend to common others. Could this be the result of a self interest "movement" common in the United States and/or capitalistic hegemony?

Regardless, respondents understand the disparities associated with computer use and acknowledge that the panacea predicted with the use of computer technology in terms of the equality of information is far from a fait accompli. They seem to understand this as "natural," a usual state of difference. Does this mean that inequality is accepted or inequality is to be expected? Difference and inequality are not the same. Respondents, however, appear to understand that difference can cause inequality. They seem to understand this better than the fact that the digital divide means differences in the result of the mainstream ideology processes. Certainly, not everyone buys into organized thinking about inequality, dominance and the American Dream. Just as there were differences of opinion about the causes and effects of the Matthew Effect and the digital divide, so too would there be differences in opinion about similar topics.

Everyone interviewed had a college education, was in college, had children in college, or had in interest in but no means to attend college. They all realized the importance of higher education. It is clear from the interviews that respondents believe that education is imperative for success. This is standard mainstream, economic and political ideology and possible evidence of either the result of a more informed population whereby the views of the dominant or elite are delivered via a mass-media based information industry through corporate media-management structure, the influence of corporate interests and advertising on media content, the deep structural ideological function of the media, and classroom penetration by media-produced materials, or a desire to prove the Matthew Effect wrong in a society where an upper-class-supported, pro-corporate, free market, individual choice government is one where inefficient ideas can get woven into and subtly dominate the content of mass-media-disseminated news content and commentary (Perrucci and Wysong, 2008). Many nonminority respondents interviewed indicated through SES information that they were financially comfortable while other minority respondents indicated a belief that education might help them achieve the American Dream. They said:

• Winning the lottery or making good use of my education are the only chances I have to realize any kind of American Dream.
• College has always been expected in my family. My parents seemed to indicate that the entry to fulfillment of the American Dream was a good education.
• I think we all know that higher education may not be the ticket to success, but success is probably not possible without it unless you're one of the old rich, and even they need education to maintain that status.
• Education is probably a type of Matthew Effect itself. It is something everyone needs, but if you're new to being college-educated you don't know or don't make use of the network available to those or are educated and who by prior education have the power and, therefore, make the decisions. These are the people with the information, the data, that not everyone has that helps maintain inequality.
• Education is about discovering what those in power already know, but if they write the books, we still only know what they want us to know, we still feel inferior and we're still second class. We're playing a never-ending circle game. If e try to get off the circle, though (or never get on), we're doomed for sure.

Many books have been written about the digital divide and many still argue the depth and breadth of inequality. Respondents recognized the parallels in the digital divide and the Matthew Effect. Those left behind in the computer technology explosion will stay behind, no doubt. It is a guess it may not be long before the American Dream is seen as an ideal that has been betrayed. Given the Matthew Effect and the digital divide, most Americans are aware of different forms of inequality. They know about income inequality that limits computer access and the patterns of discrimination against women (the gender digital divide) and racial and ethnic groups (computer access/computer-related skills that diminish economic opportunity that confirms The Matthew Effect). What they may not know about is the social arrangements that produce inequality and are responsible for its persistence and that cut across age, race, ethnicity and gender to confer privilege on a minority of Americans while relegating the rest to varying degrees of insecurity, need or despair (Perrucci and Wysong, 2008). There is that word "varying" again. Suffice it to say that inequality is contained within a class system that resembles a game of monopoly that is "rigged" so that only certain players have a chance to own Park Place, and a great many others go directly to jail. That takes a little bit of the "varying" out of the equation. This, most certainly, is not the American Dream for a democratic, egalitarian nation. For the "real" American Dream to be realized and The Matthew Effect and the digital divide to cease, only economic, social and political policies that encourage a more just society must be enforced.


Is there a way around divides, gaps and Matthew Effects? Can Americans continue to grow up with the similar beliefs and very different outcomes? As this study indicates, few doubt that there is a social divide, a gap between the information rich and the information poor, or a democratic divide, the difference between those who do and do not use digital resources to participate in public life. Few also doubt the potential impact of digital technology to reshape the flow of goods, services and investments in the marketplace. Many feel the rapid pace of change has left many unavoidably behind, and given the inequalities that abound in the United States, it is probably naive to expect otherwise.

What is uncharacteristic, however, is what I will call the insistence on a dream when the differences in the information rich and the information poor, alone should serve to inform that not all can possibly attain the dream. Information is power, indeed, and those without information usually don't succeed, not to mention the other obvious disparities. To ruin the dream for others may be sacrilegious, but others should have all the information necessary to, at least, configure the dream. The position adopted in this paper is that the primary motivation to "fix" the digital divide is to extend equal opportunity to all, achieved by the distribution of particular resources and participation to counteract The Matthew Effect and ensure the American Dream. According to van Dijk (2005), technological progress, economic competition, equal distribution of resources and opportunities or life chances and participation or social inclusion are the main motivations in society to suggest that the digital divide is a problem and that access to digital media is a necessity. To realize participation and social inclusion, a parallel to the American Dream, specific resources that have been shown to be related to successive kinds of access may have to be distributed or stimulated among particular deprived groups. This will ensure participation in the economy (labor market and business), education, social relations (networking), public and private space, mobility, culture, politics, and the official institutions of society (citizenship and entitlements) to end unequal benefits realized from technological progress, different stakes in economic growth and competition, and unfair distribution of societal resources, opportunities and life chances (van Dijk, 2005). This would seem to bring fulfillment of the American Dream, thus tipping the scales of The Matthew Effect.

This, of course, means closing the technological gaps in motivational access, material access, skills access, and usage access for all groups. There doesn't appear to be a schematic that shows how to do this. Van Dijk (2005) postulates, however, that increasing the usability and user friendliness of information technology; providing universal service, promoting broadband access, ensuring access to basic provisions of information and communication; connecting all schools to the Internet, adapting the curricula to teach computer classes, teaching both basic and advanced skills in secondary education, providing adult education in learning digital skills; and supporting learning on the job and at home will close the digital divide. With this, information-based plan, the digital divide gaps not only close, but also actualization of the American Dream and an end to The Matthew Effect are possible.


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