People, Poverty and Phones (or the Woman on Welfare doesn’t have an iPhone)

This morning I woke up, and I as I tend to do, after centering prayer and meditation, I checked through email, texts, Twitter and Facebook.  I’d feel bad about this except a friend has explained to me this is the modern equivalent of heading down to the corner coffee shop for coffee and chatter with the other regulars.

I found this graphic on my news feed, posted by one of my facebook friends.

Every day, I work with people living on the very edge of our society. I work with people on welfare and people so near the bottom of our society they can’t even get financial assistance due to a lack of residence or inability to prove their identity and so on.   The work I do with these folks, of necessity requires phones and phone numbers. If they can’t come in to my office in person, they need to call and/or leave a message.  If they don’t have a phone of their own, they need to borrow one or go to a church or social service agency and use one there.  About three or four times a week someone is in my office for sole purpose of using the phone to call a doctor, another social worker, an employer about a job or something of that sort.

I have been doing this work for just about four months now.  In addition to the applications I use in my office, I help people fill out applications for all kinds of things they need, including Texas state ID’s, driver’s licenses, immigration documents, job applications, and well, you get the picture.   Just about all of these forms ask for a phone number and most ask for home and/or cell and/or alternate numbers.  Not once in four months has anyone I’ve worked with had both a home and a cell phone number. If people have a phone at all they have a cell phone.  Let me tell you about the cell phones they have.

About two thirds of the people I have assisted in the last four months have had a phone.  When I stopped to think about it, I realized that about one third of the phone calls I return (obviously at one point placed from the phone in question) are made to numbers that have been disconnected or no longer in service.  Since most people, even those living in poverty don’t usually just give up the phone, the reason for this, I will speculate is that they couldn’t afford to keep it (they couldn’t afford to pay for it any longer).  I have in fact been told this on a number of occasions.  I have heard statements such as “I don’t have a phone.  I gave it up. It cost too much.  I spend what I have on the rent.”

I have not seen one, not 1, that’s O-N-E, not a single solitary iPhone in the last four months at work, except mine.  Let me tell you about the phones I see most often.  About half the phones my clients use are the prepaid ones you can get in convenience stores (that carry them) and that you can buy more minutes for or use with a prepaid calling card. No contracts, no Facebook, no Youtube, no email.  The other half of the phones I see are MetroPCS.   All MetroPCS plans are pre-paid.  Your bill is for the NEXT month. If you don’t pay, your phone is off for the coming month.  Go ahead click the link. Survey their plans and phones.  I have not yet been asked to help one person with a phone bill with the $60 a month plan.  I usually see the bottom of the line phones from MetroPCS, the phones in the $69-$100 range.  I have seen two top of the line MetroPCS phones in four months.  But let’s be clear – a top of the line MetroPCS Android at $249 is still not the same price as the top of the line iPhone 4 64 GB at $400. The iPhone also requires and expensive contract with AT&T or another of its carriers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the overwhelming majority of people I see with cell phone, even with a lower level smart phone, have no computer in the house, no internet access and no laptop or tablet.  The phone is it.  If you happen to be one of those who get indignant at poor people having cell phones ask yourself if having a bottom of the line or even mid-market smart phone is such a huge luxury when you put it in the context of poverty rather than in the context of your upper-middle class world that assumes the presence of the cell phone to be part of a package that include a desktop and a laptop computer, a tablet, a bundled cable/internet/land line package and home wifi to tie it all together.  No, in the world of poverty, it is just the phone.  To reinforce this, I will tell you that only two people I have helped with forms or who have applied for assistance at my office over the last four months have even had an email address.  Not one person I have dealt with in the last three months even pays their MetroPCS bill online, but rather they go to the MetroPCS store and use moneyorders, not checks or credit cards.

The real issue here isn’t people in poverty having cell phones. The real issue is – Why are there so many people living in such poverty?  It’s not because they have a cell phone and this cell phone ownership is somehow the final straw and example of their lack of character and ability to meaningfully contribute to society.

The reason we have so many people living in poverty is that most of us, deep in our hearts, actually believe the type of extreme economic inequality that exists in our society is not only justifiable, but unavoidable.  When the reality of poverty and the extreme need of your brothers and sisters intrudes upon your reality bubble, the easiest way out is to blame them for having created the reality of which they are the victims.  Oppressors blaming the oppressed for their own condition is a very old game.  If you’re calling in with that angle, I’ve got to put you on hold again now.  I’m needed back in my office desperately trying to create a more just and equitable society.

35 thoughts on “People, Poverty and Phones (or the Woman on Welfare doesn’t have an iPhone)

  1. Right on the money. These are the kinds of sidetracks that are created within the system to justify the processes and behaviors that create and support inequity. They are the distraction that the magician uses to pull your focus from the real issues of injustice and the idolatry of “free” market capitalism. A huge number of Americans really seem to love residualism.

  2. Barry Glassner does a good job of describing and illustrating misdirection in various aspects of society in his book “The Culture of Fear.”

  3. I heard a talk radio segment a while back about free phones for people on welfare. Of course listeners calling in were outraged.

    My quick search found that there seems to be some truth to this free phone claim. Maybe this link has information that could be useful to some of the people you serve.

    Thanks for blogging about your job. Almost all the students at the school in which I work live in poverty and your posts give me a better understanding of some of the challenges their families may face.

    1. Awesome and to Glenda too, thank you. Outrage about things like this is rooted in privilege. The unspoken attitude is “how dare some of THOSE people want one of my privileges!”

    2. The issue in providing services to the poor is that if they DON’T have a phone, how does the government or service provider contact them about services. Communication is not a privilege. It’s a necessity.

    3. I looked into the specifics of both of those programs–recently in corny ads on TV.
      They are for VERY limited, unrealistically limited even for carefully self-monitoring–use, and then the owner of such a phone/plan must purchase additional minutes on a very complicated plan administered through Virgin Communications. Seems to me that it’s a bit of a smokescreen that appears to provide a way for impoverished citizens to have phone service for family, emergency and job purposes (way too little for that)—I’m not promoting endless minutes for chat–and a windfall for Virgin.
      Lifeline is one of these two services.

      Your insightful blog is right-on.

  4. You don’t need an i-phone. I got a phone for $14 at AT&T that you can text on. I’m retired and don’t need or want an I’phone. The plans are very inexpensive. Certainly not the rates you quoted for those other phones…….

    1. You didn’t read this article very closely, did you? The point is that the people mentioned in this article DO NOT have iPhones. They have cheap phones like yours that enable them to stay connected – so that they are able to access the things they need that cannot be done without either a phone or an internet connection. The world has changed. They are often not retired people like you, they are people with low paying jobs, or who don’t have a job and need a way to connect so that they can apply for jobs – perhaps since you are retired, you might find time to volunteer with some of the marginalized people discussed in this article.

    2. do your have a computer with internet connection Where did you find a phone plan for $14 with texting? Is it a group rate?Because I have a pretty good package but it’s $69.99 for a family plan and every time I have investigated changing it I have been warned that there is nothing cheaper for what we get.

  5. When I was unemployed and we could not pay our bills, my whole family gave up our cell phones, but we kept the home land line for $15 per month. With the land line, we had unlimited local calls. Even if we had just one of the cheapest cell phones, it would have cost more than the land line.

    I have been told that we could have gotten a land line for free because of our financial situation, but we never tried.

    1. And getting the land line means you’re going to have someone there waiting for the phone to ring. If you don’t have someone who can be spared for that duty…

  6. For a person in the grips of poverty, there might not be an assumption you’ll be in the same apartment next month – or you may have been homeless or had to move enough in the last year that in any case, a cellular phone is the only way to be sure of a stable phone that goes with you wherever you have to move. A cell phone means friends, family, and potential employers always have a way to reach you.

  7. Reblogged this on renashub and commented:
    Basically people who complain about poor people who have cell phones or good HEAVENS a CAR make me want to scream. Especially since part of the reason I can’t find work (aside from wrong skillsets, lack of “experience” and a multitude of other problems) is because I don’t have “reliable transportation.” (In other words, a car.)

  8. Thank you. No really, thank you.

    I was in an accident which left me in constant pain and unable to work. For two years I lived on nothing but the generosity of my friends. Then I got my settlement from the accident, which was quickly spent on my ongoing medical bills. I have a crappy pre-paid phone because that’s all I can afford and I need to be able to schedule doctor appointments. I also have an iPod Touch. It was a gift from a very generous friend who recently upgraded his iPhone and wasn’t using his iPod anymore. Most of the paid apps on my iPod have been purchased for me. It was a gift and the apps on it were also gifts. So yeah, I’m buying my food with food stamps and playing Angry Birds on my iPod while I wait in line. It’s my only luxury item and it cost me nothing because it was a gift.

    When you see someone in line paying with food stamps holding what appears to be a smartphone, you are seeing one frame of their entire lifetime. You cannot possibly know the reality of their situation.

  9. 1 Timothy 5:8
    Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

    Many times that sweet i-phone the girl paying with food stamps is talking on is a gift from a parent. The decent car she is loading those groceries into? Borrowed from her parents who added her back on their insurance after Mr Wonderful ran off with the babysitter leaving her alone with 2 kids. No they don’t buy her groceries, because there are programs that help with that. They fill in where other assistance isn’t available. Should we resent that her family does what the Bible tells them to do?

  10. Victim blaming is also the best way for so many self-professed righteous people to excuse and divert attention from their own inaction. Faux Christians seem to forget Matthew 25:40…or the consequences laid out in Matthew 25: 45-46. Me, I’m pagan, but this makes perfect sense to me. And make no mistake, there are good Christian people out there, whom I love and respect deeply for their kindness and true Christian spirit, who daily make the world around them a better place. Tony, thank you for your work, and for this post.

  11. I do know someone who may be on food stamps (she’s been unemployed for a while, is probably eligible) who has an iPhone. But it is her brother’s old one, and it’s on his family plan. People forget that you need a phone to look for a job.

  12. I use foodstamps, and I have an I-phone. I’m sure people hate me for this, because I am CLEARLY a system abuser. What’s my crime? Having a mother who gives a crap and wants me to stay connected to her.
    My mother has a family plan, and she pays for the bill. I opted out of getting the i-phone the first time because all I wanted/needed was the little plain phone. This last upgrade, the i-phone 4 was only 99 cents, making it a cheaper option than the other. My phone had broken, so I -had- to get a new phone.

    Just because you see someone with an i-phone in their pocket, or talking on one, using a foodstamp card, it doesn’t mean they’re rich because they don’t have to buy their groceries.
    You have to be -pretty- poor to get those cards people.

  13. Thank you for posting this. As a former Case Manager for Adult Protective Services (APS) in Texas, I can corroborate this testimony with experience of my own. In my year with APS, I never once saw a gaming console, designer clothes, or other things classified as luxuries in the homes of my clientele. If they had a phone, it was prepaid, and half the time was out of minutes.

    If they had internet, it was on a very old computer and was predominantly used for job or housing searches, not that I would begrudge someone for indulging in some Solitaire from time to time. It is so interesting to me that we hold the impoverished to a higher level – as if they should be above vices because they cannot afford them. They are human too.

    Social Security and SSI checks are typically $674/month. This amounts to $8,088 annually – poverty. It is simply not enough to cover all expenses for most people, leading them to struggle at the end of every month. $674 doesn’t even cover my rent, and I don’t live in a luxury apartment. Many of my cases involved individuals who could not afford their medications, food, electricity or rent because $674 is so little money for all these things. There is nothing left over for iPhones, so the widespread belief that a large number of welfare recipients possess these items is baffling to me. It simply is not a portrait of reality. Again, thank you for your insight.

  14. Reblogged this on Curvalicious and commented:
    I agree with this blog posting. Every. Word.

    And in the interest of full disclosure, I used to be on welfare. Food stamps, TANF, Medicaid, the works. I am fully self supporting now, though. Not because I’m any better than I was, just more fortunate. My mental health is much improved, and my family is recovering quite nicely from domestic violence, to the point where I am able to work outside the home and do a kickass job at what I do.
    Welfare sucks. Very few people are on it by choice.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the comment. This is a rather old post of mine and I’m wondering why it’s receiving so much traffic lately. If anyone can let me know where they saw it or how they got linked to it recently, I’d love to know.

      1. Facebook ftw. A friend of mine reposted it on Facebook too. I haven’t worked for the government, but I have worked at Aldi, a low cost grocery store. And I don’t think I ever saw any of the LINK card users put anything expensive in their shopping carts, like say lobster. There is currently a receipt from a LINK card user floating about the internet, of someone who spent $141 on lobster and steak. It got a lot of my more conservative friends up in arms. Personally, I think the card was stolen or something like that.

  15. With decently priced data, even the cheaper prepaid phones could give your clients access to email, online support services, job seeking sites – all the resources that the rest of society takes for granted when they find themselves in need of something.

    Communication isn’t a luxury. It’s more than a necessity. It’s the key to unlocking a more self-reliant future.

  16. I was at one point an iPhone possessing person making a transaction with food stamps (well, EBTF card), and apparently (as I was told later by the cashier who knows me fairly well) people behind me in line bitched about it. However, what they didn’t know is that I was a volunteer assisting a disabled woman (whose food stamps they were), and I suppose it is somewhat understandable that they didn’t see her waiting in her wheelchair beyond the checkout lane, or if they saw her, didn’t understand that I was with her and assisting her.

    I seriously wonder if these incidents where people observe these outrageous things are blown up out of circumstances like these where the observers don’t really know what’s going on.

  17. And, even should one of these people have a fancy dancy phone, that doesn’t mean that THEY bought it or pay for the service. My son-in-law has been out of work for over two years — my husband and I got them phones and keep them on our account.

  18. It taps into the debate (that’s gained traction recently in the UK) about whether those on welfare ‘should’ have ‘luxuries’ such as a mobile phone…. The points that you make are as valid here and now as they were when you first posted them. The tactics of ‘divide and conquer’ are being used here very effectively to set sections of the working class against each other in the hope (sadly being realised) that people won’t make a fuss about the tax cuts for millionaires that recently came into force, but will attack those on welfare for daring to attempt to live a normal life on ever-shrinking amounts of money. I despair…

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