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Editorial: Who Will Be Hurt?

Innovations, changes and cuts designed to help the budget should be subject to analysis of how they will affect those on the short end of the economic and digital divide.

As Fairfax County faces a tight budget year and Fairfax County Public Schools consider significant cuts, clearly some changes are going to affect services on the ground.

As various proposals emerge, there should be some specific analysis of how changes, innovations and cuts would affect the poorest one-third or so of the county’s residents specifically.

The schools, along with certain county agencies, must take special note of their mission, including providing services to families who are on the short side of the economic and digital divide. Elimination of print notices and newsletters, conversion to digital textbooks, use of internet-based surveys are just examples of small innovations that can leave many residents behind.

In another example, it is disturbing that ongoing concerns about Fairfax County libraries do not include a clear statement of mission to serve families and individuals who lack access to broadband internet at home.

In Fairfax County, where nearly 20 percent of the households have annual income of under $50,000, about 8 percent live below the poverty line and more than 47,000 public school students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals, the public libraries are indispensable. Access to library resources goes beyond books, and includes the very digital access that many people cite as a threat to libraries. Public access to information via computers and Internet for those who do not have other access is a critical service, and should be clearly defined as a critical mission of the libraries.

According to a 2010 report, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: 44 percent of people in households living below the federal poverty line ($22,000 a year for a family of four) used public library computers and Internet access; among young adults 14-24 in households below the poverty line, 61 percent used public library computers and Internet for educational purposes; among seniors 65 and older living in poverty, 54 percent used public library computers for health or wellness needs.

The report also notes: "This access has also proven to be critical in times of disaster, where libraries may be the only access point still operating that can provide a delivery point for government and social services to those displaced."

Budgeting and restructuring must take into consideration the disproportionate effect of cutting services on lower income households especially.