Despite plummeting computer prices and billions of dollars spent wiring public schools and libraries, white, high-income Americans continue to predominate in the online world, according to a new government report.

Black and Hispanic Americans are tapping the Internet from home in increasing numbers, the Commerce Department study found, but white users are moving in even faster, making much of the Internet more like an exclusive suburb than a true reflection of America.

These new statistics aren't just about technology. In a week in which President Clinton is touring pockets of the country that have not benefited from the long-running economic boom, the report comes as something of a political manifesto for the Democratic Party.

Clinton told an audience in Anaheim, Calif., yesterday: "There is a growing digital divide between those who have access to the digital economy and the Internet and those who don't, and that divide exists along the lines of education, income, region and race. . . . If we want to unlock the potential of our workers, we have to close that gap."

Critics of the White House oppose government-ordered efforts to expand access to the online world, particularly to a program that has resulted in Americans paying surcharges on their phone bills to subsidize Internet links for schools and libraries.

"We've got a new technology spreading more rapidly than any new technology has spread in history," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. "And of course it doesn't spread absolutely evenly. Richer people always adopt new technology first -- and that's not news," Boaz said. He dismissed the report as a snapshot view that misses a general trend toward increasing Internet access across the board.

"There's no such thing as information haves and information have-nots," Boaz said. "There are have-nows and have-laters. The families that don't have computers now are going to have them in a few years."

The report, "Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," is the third examination by the Commerce Department of American access to telephones, computers and the Internet. The department said the study uses the most authoritative statistics available.

Based on data collected in door-to-door polling by the Census Bureau, the report found that more than 40 percent of households own computers and more than 25 percent have Internet access from home. But households with annual incomes of $75,000 and above are more than 20 times as likely to have Internet access as households at the lowest income levels. Households that identified themselves as being black and Hispanic are only 40 percent as likely as white households to be online.

The new report shows that even though white, black and Hispanic households are going online in greater numbers, the gap between white households and black and Hispanic households has grown more than 6 percentage points. "Last year we thought we had a problem with the digital divide -- this year it's increasing," said Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Department.

The differences cannot be explained by income alone. More than a third of white families earning between $15,000 and $35,000 per year owned computers, but only one in five black families at the same income level did.

At the high end of the income scale, however, differences are narrowing. Since 1994, black families making more than $75,000 per year have lagged behind whites in computer ownership; according to the new figures, these black families are catching up.

The report also asked Americans whether they have access to the Internet outside of the home. While 26.7 percent of whites could tap the Internet from home, adding access from other locations, such as workplaces, schools and libraries, brought the figure up to 37.7 percent.

Blacks and Hispanics who were connected tended to be more dependent than whites on outside access. About 9.2 percent of blacks had access at home, but that figure more than doubled, to 19 percent, when connections from other locations were added in; total Hispanic Internet rates jumped from 8.7 percent to 16.6 percent this way.

Last year's study did not collect information about out-of-home access. It is not possible, therefore, to say whether the digital divide is growing based on access from all places.

Because whites are far more likely to have Internet access at work than blacks or Hispanics, the study found, much of the outside access for minority groups comes from schools, libraries and community computing centers.

Irving suggested that aggressive efforts by the Clinton administration to connect schools and libraries to the Internet have helped keep the gap from being wider than it is, and he called for more of the same. "There is an urgent need for continued efforts to connect all Americans," he said. "Pro-competition policies will continue to make new technologies more affordable for more Americans."

The government's focus on technology centers for the poor was welcome news to Veronica Parke, president of Martha's Table. The 14th Street NW social service center has been giving clients access to computers and the Internet for several years. "It is strengthening community ties and families," she said. "The important thing is that people are not left behind."

The full report and underlying statistics can be found online at www.ntia.doc.gov.

THE NET'S DIVIDE

While Internet use jumped from 1997 to 1998, the gap between the rates at which whites and minorities connected from home widened.

Percent of U.S. households using the Net Increase in usage rate

White* '97: 21.2% 53%

'98: 32.4%

Black* '97: 7.7% 52%

'98: 11.7%

Hispanic '97: 8.7% 48%

'98: 12.9%

*Non-Hispanic

. . . and most people are still not online.

Percent of total U.S. population

Not using the Net 67.3%

Using the Net 32.7%

SOURCE: Commerce Department