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.