The speaker onstage at Kelly’s community college looks like he’s having a heart attack. A well-known conservative academic on campus, his face turns red and his hands motion frenetically.
But he’s actually denouncing the American poor, who he says are a leech upon the nation, with their reliance on welfare, their laziness, their misplaced priorities.
“Instead of putting their kids at school or getting better jobs, they’re spending their money on TVs, VCRs, iPhones!” he shouts, waving his own iPhone 6 in the air.
19-year-old Kelly watches, detached. She looks like any other student at this small community college outside of Chicago, with her skinny jeans, her headphones and her backpack. She’s recording the event with her smartphone for YouTube, as part of her second-year Journalism class.
She lowers her phone. “That’s all I need for class,” she says. “Now let’s get out of here.” She holds her head high as she walks out of the auditorium.
She seems calm, but she’s angry. She takes attacks on the poor personally, since she’s poor herself: her family has been on food stamps and other forms of assistance for years, and lived in low-income housing for as long as she can remember. Her schooling is paid for by scholarships. Her car is shared with three of her siblings, who all live together still at home.
The only thing she got new was her Samsung Galaxy phone. But that doesn’t mean she’s “misusing” her public assistance.
“I’m sick and tired of people thinking ‘poor’ looks a certain way,” she says. Poor people, in fact, own smartphones much more frequently than you’d think — for better or for worse.
Kelly grew up surrounded by love and faith, raised by a dad who worked as a dishwasher and a mom who worked part-time as a grocery store cashier. Her parents came to the U.S. from Central America, and made sure Kelly and her sisters went to church, played outside and read plenty of books from the library.
“My mom and pop emphasized learning, education and community growing up,” she said. “They did a good job making sure we felt like we lacked for nothing and did a lot on limited resources.”
“We got school lunches, and other kids made fun of us for that,” Kelly remembers. “But my mom said she was being practical: why spend time making lunch for four girls when school gives it to us free? She made skimping and saving part of being smart, not poor.”
Fancy sneakers gave their low socioeconomic status away. “I wanted a pair of those light-up sneakers,” Kelly says. “But my mom refused to get them. At first she said they were trashy and trendy, and ugly, but I didn’t care. My mom finally broke down and said we couldn’t afford them, and unless they popped up at the local Salvation Army, I wasn’t getting a pair.”
This was a revelation for Kelly. “I started looking around at everyone else and realized most of the other kids got their clothes new,” she says. “The kids that didn’t — well, they looked a little shabbier, and other kids made fun of them. And then I realized, wow, actually, that’s how we look: just rough around the edges.”
Kelly changed how she saw the world and herself. “There are labels you give yourself and labels people put on you,” Kelly says. “Suddenly I realized ‘poor’ was one I never saw before — but it’s what people see when they saw me.”
These days, the object of socioeconomic status for Kelly isn’t sneakers, but a smartphone. But this time, Kelly actually got her much-coveted cell.
Not without some sacrificing, though. “We don’t have an Internet connection at home. We don’t have a large flatscreen TV or a Blu-Ray,” she points out. “We don’t even have a dishwasher. We don’t pay a mortgage and rent because why buy when everyone but my parents are gonna move out in a few years? So we spend money on our phones and Verizon bill instead.”
Yet Kelly is well aware of the judgment and prejudices of having a smartphone, still considered an expensive luxury by many. “I went to the human services office in my county to deal with some Medicaid issues,” she said. “And you could see some people give me the stink-eye, like how dare a poor person like me have a phone like mine? People judge and think just because you’re poor, you can’t buy certain things.”
Many think phones are status symbols or fashion accessories, and phone makers certainly market their products to emphasize their cool factor and style.
But smartphones are increasingly necessities, and the majority of adult Americans own them. According to Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of American adults now own a smartphone. By contrast, in 2011, one-in-three Americans were smartphone owners.
Interestingly, smartphone ownership is highest among Latino and black American adults, at 71 percent and 70 percent respectively — a contrast to the 61 percent of white Americans who own a smartphone. Kelly’s family — her father is black and her mother is Latino — fits these statistics perfectly.
Kelly and her family also fit into a growing trend: one-in-five Americans who own smartphones either have no or very limited access to other options in terms of getting online. This group jettisons traditional computer ownership or Internet access at home in favor of accessing the Web on their handsets. ‘
Pew call these users “smartphone-dependent” — lower-income families and individuals who don’t have any other tech resources besides their phone. They’re less likely to own a computer, tablet or have their own home Internet connection — simply because they can’t afford it.
Kelly’s family fits the bill. “I don’t really use a computer at home for the Internet,” Kelly says. “We have an old laptop that we use for writing papers and printing, but it’s ancient — I think we got it at a flea market. I use the Internet on it at school and it’s basically a lumbering dinosaur — it’s so slow and annoying.”
Traditional Internet access in their area is expensive. “Getting service in our area is actually nearly two hundred dollars, while a data plan and phone service for all of us is about the same,” Kelly says. “But with phones, they’re portable, work better and have more free apps that people actually use.”
Kelly points out that her jobs, internships and classwork all lean on mobile in some way. Kelly works at a restaurant, and her boss typically texts the servers their schedules. Her co-workers also tend to communicate over text when they give up shifts for others to earn extra money.
“I also do a lot of work over my smartphone,” Kelly says. “A lot of my assignments are pretty dependent on social media or the Internet in some way, either participating in discussions on bulletin boards or forums for class, or doing an assignment using video.”
As she talks, she checks her phone compulsively. She’s not being rude — instead, she’s messaging someone at a company she wants to intern at for the summer.
She cultivated a relationship over social media, and found out about internships before they were announced publicly. These kind of advantages for Kelly would not be possible without her smartphone Internet connection.
The average cost of an iPhone is $687 and an Android smartphone is $254, according to Forbes, but poor families can afford them because they’re subsidized by carriers, who offer low-cost or free models in favor of signing contracts
Owning a smartphone, though, has hidden costs for the smartphone-dependent, especially if their phone is their only connection to the Internet.
Monthly cell phone bills are still a financial hardship for many. The average Verizon cell phone bill at the end of 2013 was $148 a month, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Almost seven-in-ten people in the U.S. who own smartphones are on a family plan — and one-fifth of these users report their bills can be over $200, says Pew.
Additional fees are also paid for going over data allotments — a common occurrence, according to Pew, given that so many people now rely on their phones to access the Internet and stream media.
The smartphone-dependent also likely to financially suffer if their bills skew higher than expected, or their service is suspended. They have fewer financial resources to handle these problems — they’re less likely to have bank accounts, for example, or own health or other kind of insurance, according to Pew.
As a result, the smartphone-dependent often find themselves further down an already deep hole financially if something goes wrong with their bill. A smartphone might be easier for a poor person to get than, say, a computer or other resource — but the ultimate price could be higher.
But for many like Kelly, the alternative is no Internet access at all — almost unheard of in today’s world. Having no or limited Internet access is almost a surefire way to stay poor, at least for those like Kelly who want to lift themselves out of poverty to a better life.
Kelly’s family epitomizes the cycles that the smartphone-dependent can find themselves in. “We definitely have been surprised when we open our bill and see it’s a lot higher than expected,” Kelly says. “I remember we were shocked at about $100 in extra data charges a few years ago. We were like, WTF — until we realized that my mom downloaded an app that would drain data, even when she wasn’t using it.”
And how did that affect that month’s finances? “It was tough,” Kelly said. “Even a hundred dollars affects our family’s budget for the month. We ended up putting it on a credit card, which sucked because we paid extra in terms of interest. But what can you do? The alternative would be not paying our bill and having our service shut off.”
Kelly’s family learned the hard way that having service cut off cost them more in the long run. “A few times we did have our service cut off because, you know, we got hit with a high bill on a month where we had other expenses — car broke down, medical expenses, that kind of thing — and we just didn’t have the money to pay it,” she says. “We got cut off after a few months of not being able to pay our entire bill, and boy, the reactivation fees killed us too. But that’s life when your cushion is thin.”
There were indirect costs, as well. “We were on a family plan, so when service got cut off, it got cut off for all of us,” Kelly says. “During the days we had it cut off, one of my sisters lost her job because her boss couldn’t get in touch with her at the last minute for something. It was kind of a double blow for her, and it really affected her for months after.”
In a way, the complicated reality of who owns smartphones reflects the complex realities of being poor in the U.S.
The government — specifically, the U.S. Census Bureau — measures poverty strictly by income. If your family makes less than a certainthreshold — set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 — you’re considered living in poverty. In 2012, the most recent year for which Census data is available, the poverty threshold for a family of four was $23,492.
But many argue defining poverty strictly by income is too simplistic. This absolute definition of poverty doesn’t take account differences in regional costs in housing, transportation and cost of living — $23,492 in an inexpensive city in the South, for example, is a different reality for a family in New York City.
Some argue defining poverty needs to consider social context, such as whether or not families have access to resources like clean water and air, affordable health care, stable job opportunities, social networks, government services and other resources.
They also want to distinguish between chronic poverty and temporary hardship — a middle-class family can hit a rough patch and draw upon their savings or sell their assets, for example, but a family in chronic financial straits will likely not have resources to soften the blow.
How we define poverty colors our political debates and lawmaking — especially as the face of poverty changes. For example, the poor are more likely now to be educated: the number of people with graduate degrees receiving food stamps or federal aid nearly tripled between 2007 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
No matter how you define it, living in financial hardship can cost in ways beyond strictly money. Poverty compromises health, through stress and poor access to healthy food and medicine, for example.
It can also create a kind of mental fatigue, according to The Atlantic. Poverty creates heavy cognitive burdens on the poor — the equivalent of losing 13 IQ points, according to researchers.
Those living in poverty constantly weigh choices against one another, factoring in limited resources against sometimes dire consequences. Can they pay their rent as well as their phone bill? Can they afford to buy a coat for the winter, or should they sfix their house before the cold sets in? The constant mental calculus can quickly wear a person down.
Kelly is familiar with this kind of limited cognitive bandwidth, as it’s called by researchers. “Every decision about spending and consuming is so complicated,” she says. “It’s not just constantly balancing your budget mentally — it’s like everything you do has consequences, and you’re trying to predict all of them and judge which one will hurt the least. Like paying your doctor’s bill — it’s a bigger bill and more pressing, but then again, medical bills don’t rack up interest. But putting your cell phone on a credit card bill does, at a higher rate — but then again, I don’t see my credit card bill people, and my health isn’t in their hands. Which one should I pay off? I have to run all the scenarios in my mind, and it’s stressful.”
This mental work leaves the poor so psychologically drained that they have little energy to do things that might lift them out of poverty — look for new jobs, beef up on skills or even manage their money well enough to avoid overdrafts or late payments.
It can also lead to poor decision-making, and often a kind of hopelessness and exhaustion that makes longer-term investments of energy and effort seem not as worthwhile as immediate relief.
As a result, the lose-lose cycle that often characterizes poverty is perpetuated — not because of flawed values or lack of education or intelligence, but because they’re saddled with intense mental burdens that make life difficult. A smartphone is often seen as a way to make life easier for its users, but paying for them can add to that cognitive burden in ways that perpetuate the cycle.
A poor person owning a smartphone takes a gamble. The device connects them to the Internet, and to the resources it offers: job listings, social media connections, knowledge, entertainment, software, cameras.
At the same time, it’s a risk because the bills are so high, and the penalties if you can’t pay them can be even higher.
If nearly a quarter of smartphone users live in financial difficulty, according to Pew, then costly data plans and mysterious carrier fees aren’t just consumer nuisances — they’re arguably a social issue that perpetuates dangerous financial cycles. It also arguably puts a social burden on websites to be mobile-friendly, so that information is truly accessible to all.
Kelly’s life and family reflects the push-pull dynamic of dealing with chronic financial hardship — how hard it is going from month to month, without no real safety net to cushion them if the unexpected happens.
But Kelly has hope. Her good news — she’s landed her internship for the summer, which will likely prove a valuable experience for her resume. Ironically, the internship is in the social media department of a fashion retailer.
“They were impressed by my ability to communicate and connect on the fly with my phone,” Kelly says. Needless to say, without her phone, Kelly likely wouldn’t have landed this opportunity.
And yet paying the high monthly bill is a constant worry for her and her family. Kelly recently took on her own individual plan — she can’t risk a member of her family not being able to chip in and all of them losing their connection.
But she’s responsible for the $100-plus bill. As a full-time student who works to pay for tuition and help her family, she worries if she’s going to be able to juggle an internship on top of it all. And because her internship is in the city, she needs to take a slower, more expensive train into town.
And then there are unexpected expenses, as well. “I have to get new clothes, because this is a stylish company,” she says. “I guess there are hidden costs to everything.”
Kelly hopes it’s all worth and that her opportunity pays off in the long run by helping her get a better job when she graduates.
“I’m doing the best with what I have,” she says, scanning her Facebook on her phone. “I just hope what I have is enough.” ♦