Smartphones and Poverty

I want to start by thanking those of you who chose to read this post, as I realize that this is not the sexiest title you will see this week.  While this topic may not be good click-bait, it nonetheless deserves an important discussion.

United States Representative Jason Chaffetz (R) recently came under fire for a controversial quote while defending the Trump administration’s (now defeated) healthcare plan that was supposed to replace the ACA.

Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. And so, maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest it in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions for themselves.

Ignoring the fact that health insurance can often cost significantly more than an iPhone, this did make me wonder about the state of mobile devices and the poor in America.  Do a lot of poor Americans actually have smartphones? And if so, do they really need them when they could be using that money for food, clothing, and shelter?

Reflecting on my own experience for a moment, I remember having these thoughts before, when I spent the summer working at a local car wash back in High School.  The vast majority of my coworkers at the car wash were impoverished adult men, many of whom were homeless.  Over time, I became friendly with my coworkers and heard their stories of tragedy one by one.  Drugs, crime, and poverty had crippled these men beyond belief.  After work I would see my fellow human beings walk off into the woods where they lived.  It was heartbreaking.

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All the while, I noticed that every single one of these men had not only a cell phone, but a fully equipped smartphone.  I couldn’t have been more confused.  Why did these men spend the little money they had on data plans instead of shelter?  I never forgot about that, and the words of Rep. Chaffetz made wonder once again if this observation was truly symbolic of a greater trend, and if so, why America’s poor choose to spend what little money they have on smartphones.  So, I decided to do some research.

As it turns out, a significant amount of lower class Americans actually own smartphones.  According to a Pew Research study conducted in late 2016, 92% of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year own cell phones, and 64% of the same demographic own smartphones.  The big question then is why poor Americans would spend such a relatively large amount of money on what seems to be a luxury product.  The answer is actually very simple.

Smartphones are not a luxury for poor people; they are a necessity.

Because of their economic situations, middle and upper class Americans view smartphones as luxury items.  If a middle or upper class person breaks their smartphone, they have plenty of alternatives.  For example, they can still use their laptop computer and/or mobile tablet to access the internet from their provider at home.  In addition, they can most likely use their work computer to access the internet at their job.  If for some reason none of these options are available, they could probably seek help from their middle or upper class parent, spouse, or friend who likely has multiple devices of his or her own at their disposal.  In all reality, a smartphone helps to make their lives easier, but is not critical to their existence.

This cannot be further from the truth for poor people.  Many low income Americans rely entirely on their smartphones as their only technological device.  They certainly do not have the disposable income to afford a laptop computer and broadband internet access, and the many who work in blue collar jobs probably do not have a work computer either. This phenomenon is referred to as smartphone dependency.  A person is considered to be smartphone dependent if he/she owns a smartphone and does not have broadband internet access from their home.  After reviewing the chart below, it is absolutely clear that the decision for a less fortunate American to purchase a smartphone makes a great deal of sense.

Smartphone Dependency By Income:

Chart Income

Americans earning less than $30,000 per year are the most likely economic group to be smartphone dependent.  To these people, smartphones are simply not a luxury.

While the large portion of poor Americans considered to be smartphone dependent may seem negative, this is in fact a positive statistic.  These statistics show that people who otherwise would be unable to access the internet are able to do so via mobile devices.  This becomes especially important when considering the various uses of the internet which are crucial to poor Americans in particular.

When low income Americans gain internet access through a smartphone, they gain access a better education, which is critical in escaping the cycle of poverty.  Online classes provide affordable higher education, while traditional elementary schools now have moved to paperless curriculums that require students to do homework online.  Another very important use of the internet for lower income Americans is for professional purposes.  Most jobs today are only posted online, and people of all backgrounds need to have internet access to find opportunities to advance professionally and economically.

opportunity

I am very glad I took the time to research and inform myself about this issue, and I hope you enjoyed learning about it as well.  So the next time someone asks about whether that poor person should be spending all their money on an iPhone, kindly remind that person that smartphones are anything but a luxury for less fortunate Americans.

For further information about this topic, please see my main source here.

11 comments

  1. No, thank YOU for taking the time to research and write this post, I really appreciated reading and learning from it. I feel like I see them same smartphone dependency phenomenon occurring in China as well…when you get on a subway cart, you’ll realize that while the middle and upperclass are watching TV on their bejeweled-cased smartphones, the lower-class are often doing the same. What’s interesting is the lower-class often opt for iPhones if they can and if they don’t have enough income for that, they’ll purchase a cheaper local smartphone that can basically provide the same functionalities. I always found it bewildering why they would make a smartphone their first investment after 2 months of hard-earned income instead of saving it for Shanghai’s crazy expensive rent, but now after reading your post, I think you make a very logical and compelling argument that smartphones are a necessity for them – again, thank you for your post.

  2. Great post and a lot of careful research, thank you! All the reasons listed in your post make a lot of logical sense, and I agree that smartphones should be viewed as necessary “goods” that provide access, rather than luxury. However, i would still view iPhones in particular as luxury – for reasons we all know, they are priced at a premium over many other smartphones, particularly Android-based models. Android-based phones account for about 80% of the smartphone market share in the world, which is primarily due to the fact that those phones are accessible to people in countries with lower income, who would otherwise not be able to afford a smartphone like an iPhone. Keep in mind that in a lot of countries, you have to buy the phone in addition to the plan. Since in the US the phones are “subsidized” by the carriers, it would be interesting what the iPhone vs. Android breakdown in less than $30k income households looks like.

  3. Awesome blog post! This is a topic I hadn’t put much thought into before but your research as to why individuals with low incomes are more dependent on smartphones than individuals with high incomes really speaks for itself. Similar to Ulker’s stance, I agree that smartphones are a necessity for these individuals because it provides them with access to the internet but that certain models are still considered a luxury and would not be the practical choice for them to purchase.

  4. Really great post. I hadn’t considered that those living in poverty would actually need a smartphone as much as highlighted in this post – but clearly they do! I like how you put it that a smartphone is a luxury good to those of more financial means and is not something we absolutely need in order to survive (as much as we think we do) because we have access to other forms of technology that link us to the world via the internet. This post has certainly given me a different perspective on smartphones and what they actually mean to different demographics.

  5. This is one of the most insightful blog posts I read thus far! It really opened my eyes with your very valid arguments to realize how certain products can be viewed differently based on your economic class. Your personal experience at the car wash really put all of this into perspective. To be honest, beginning to read this article I shared the same opinion as you, wondering why on earth lower income people would waste their money on smartphones rather than food and shelter. I now have a very different opinion on this issue. Thank you!!

  6. Interesting post – I think the comment by Rep. Jason Chaffetz was quite ignorant and poorly thought-through. These type of ridiculous over-simplifications are not unique to American politics. It reminded me of a recent situation in Ireland, where there were a lot of protests in response to the Government introducing water charges. Many of the protestors would use smartphones to record confrontations with police officers/politicians/utility company workers. A lot of politicians commented that the protesters should be able to afford the water charges, given their ability to afford high-spec smartphones. You make great points about dependence on smartphones!

  7. Great post! Many resources that are essential to survival for lower incomes are more accessible online as well. The smart phone 3 in one service and therefore economical if you have to make the choice. A smartphone replaces the need for a traditional landline phone, cable TV, and broadband provider. Even better its portable and will be with the person if sudden relocation is required.

  8. I really really love this post because I have had the same experience as you did at the car wash. At my Pulse placement, I volunteered with homeless teenagers and teen moms who were living or getting their GED at a Boston Teen Shelter. And I always wondered how many of whom, recently out of jail or kicked out of their own homes could afford the same iPhone I had in my pocket. And this all makes a lot of sense – without the smartphone, they wouldn’t have access to the majority of the things they need, including information about shelters, schools, or just knowledge in general. I’m really glad you brought this topic up because I have always wondered about it.

  9. This post is so awesome, thank you for writing it. This is a subject that most of us probably rarely, if ever, think about, and it deserves our attention. I love how you used your personal experience at the car wash to show how close to home this situation hits with the people in our everyday lives, even if we don’t realize it. It is kind of crazy to me that someone would choose a phone over a roof, but when I actually think about what I would choose if I had to…I think I would choose the phone. It’s a fight between physical and mental benefits. Yes I want to be warm and protected, but I also want access to information, news, friendships, family, etc. and to me the latter is more important. Again, really great food for thought and I appreciate you posting this!

  10. Nice post. My family largely lives in Sweden and a few summers ago I was interested in the same issue. There were hundreds of beggars on the street but next to them was a smartphone, and I couldn’t understand why. It turned out to be the exact same reason as we have here in the US that you’ve identified. They use their phones and the free wifi provided by some shopping centers and shops to find out what is happening in the world, where their families are, where they can find work and for other necessary communications. Having internet is not really a luxury at all anymore, it is truly a necessity and even more so for those in lower income classes.

  11. Great post. I think this trend first became apparent during the 2008 recession. People couldn’t afford to keep their houses, but they had to keep their mobile devices to have any hope of getting back in the workforce.

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