Why Do Poor People Need Cell Phones, Anyway?

poor person and cell phoneTypically, this question is posed with a bit of disdain because of opposition towards government programs that provide subsidies or any type of assistance for the poor. In fact, I recently saw this rather biased report that supposedly exposed the real conditions of the so-called poor. Some have TVs, microwaves and even cell phones. I think the sentiment behind this exposure is pretty obvious. If you’re really poor you wouldn’t own these conveniences.

I’m going to suggest that these unfortunate statistics and statements not only demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the real issues of poverty, but also reveal a disturbing bias against the poor.  It presumes that somehow a couple of electronic “conveniences” lifts that person out of poverty without any consideration to the much larger issues the poor have to face, such as substandard housing, lack of access to quality healthcare, deficient skills for marketable income and limited options to advance towards greater self-sufficiency.

Now, I do understand the concerns over our tax dollars going to support those who don’t want to take personal responsibility for their lives and rely on government subsidies. I sympathize with the frustrations related to big government and an astronomical federal deficit. But if you think that describes everyone who lives at or below the poverty line, which by the way is a mere $23,050 annually for a family of four, then think again.

Many who are subjected to poverty face very difficult barriers to overcome whether or not they receive government subsidies. If you add in the psychological and sociological effects of poverty, especially when experienced generationally, then you’re talking about a lot of barriers that may need 3rd party assistance just to achieve a reasonable level of personal responsibility. Often simple solutions of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps come from our own perspective of advantage and opportunity, not realizing that perhaps we had access to resources that other did not.  Yes, some overcome incredible odds but many do not.

At CitySquare, where I work the stories of the thousands that come through our food pantry and other 14 programs often tell a different story than the lazy, responsibility shirking  characterization that is often painted. More than anything, people just want hope for a better life but experience frustration due to lack of skills, knowledge or opportunity to get there. That’s why non-profits like ours exist, to help people overcome these barriers and achieve self-sufficiency.

So why do poor people need cell phones? Cell phones are a way to connect with other people. In a world filled with multiple barriers and bleak opportunities, the cell phone may not lift them out of poverty but it might for that moment of connectivity lift them above dismal circumstances. The cell phone provides hope that maybe there’s a chance for a brighter future. Perhaps it would be better to think about the real issues of poverty instead of superficial non-sequiturs like cell phones, TVs and microwaves.


3 thoughts on “Why Do Poor People Need Cell Phones, Anyway?

  1. chelseajin January 6, 2013 / 12:36 pm

    I’d really love to ask you something. Maybe you know and maybe you don’t. A lot of people I run into say they have no income and are clearly not earning enough pay, but they do have cell phones and oftentimes they’re high end iphones and androids. Don’t you need a credit line to get a phone? And in that case, don’t you need to state some sort of income?

  2. anonski January 14, 2013 / 7:07 am

    You don’t need any credit to buy a phone if you are purchasing with cash upfront, which is how most purchases are still done.

    A mobile phone is mandatory is today’s world. In order to find even a minimum wage job, an employer needs to be able to reach you at any given time. Poor people often do not have vehicles of their own, so a phone helps when they are out doing errands, going to school or whatever. They need to be able to reach people to get a ride (as opposed to public transportation which is getting progressively more outrageously expensive), or in emergency situations. Cell phone plans are often cheaper than land lines, and have more services and are portable. So poor people usually opt to not have a land line at all in favor of cell phones.

    Bottom line – Phones are not just expensive gadget toys (poor people often have the most basic phones with basic services available), they are a necessity of today’s social environment. Without one, you will only become poorer, because you will be “off the grid”.

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