"Forget adults. Focus on children," a business executive told Rick Tobias, director of Toronto's Yonge Street Mission (YSM).

Tobias's original plan had been to teach impoverished adults and single moms computer literacy so they could get jobs. But when Tobias asked businesses if they would hire YSM's grads, they laughed. They told him bluntly that a lack of white-collar social skills—never mind computer literacy—barred most poor people from employment in Toronto's silver and gold office towers.

What to do? Taking the business community's counsel to heart, Tobias decided to shift his focus to younger students, who could break the cycle of socioeconomic depression in their community.

Named after Toronto's most famous street, the Yonge Street Mission has for more than a century served the urban poor—everyone from newly arrived refugees to homeless people who sleep on city grates during the winter. Most of YSM's clientele live in southeast-central Toronto, an area dominated by Regent Park, a subsidized housing development with a 50 percent unemployment rate.

Regent Park looks like a prison without bars—it doesn't need them. The children here face steep odds against finding living-wage employment in the wired world. They have 66 percent less access to computers than other children in Toronto. Teachers try hard, but poor schools throughout Canada seldom have enough money for classroom computers.

Canada's situation mirrors that of the United States. A 1998 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce worried that "while computer penetration has increased nationwide, there is still a significant 'digital divide' based on race, income, and other demographic characteristics." For example, 51 percent of U.S. households own computers, but the ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.