Poverty and Cell Phones

by chelseajin

There’s one patient (let’s pretend Fiona) who comes in fairly regularly and tends to brag about how they have no income. It could be a brand of exceptionally dark self-deprecating humor, but I was always confused by the seeming incongruity of her statements to her presentation. There are brand new sports sneakers on her feet and a slick Android in her hand. The clothes I can find more explanations for, but the phone? Don’t you need a credit line for a phone? How can you do that if you have “no income”?

inflamed yet?

A google search on just the words “poverty” and “cell phone” brings back a huge explosion of arguments (this picture being a subject of many).

A lot of people rant that the poor don’t deserve to have luxury items like the newest cell phones. Some bring up the possibility that it could be a gift. I personally find it hard to believe that anyone in any income bracket would give an iPhone as a gift since the hardware is expensive and it puts the burden of a data plan on the recipient.

I think this picture has the quality of awful humor, but is really fixated on a wrong point. Food stamps have nothing to do with cell phones. US grad students are eligible for food stamps and I’m sure no one is lambasting them for owning fancy gadgets. Food stamps also don’t tell someone how much money they make but only give you a range to guess within.

I’m not saying in any way that people in bad financial shape shouldn’t have cell phones. In fact, a cell phone is crucial to securing a job if you don’t have any other form of long distance communication. I would argue however, that getting a newly-released smartphone with all the bells and whistles a young college student could dream for is not the best use of funds.

In trying to understand how Fiona was able to get her phone, I found you could get an unlocked phone from craigslist or similar “disposable” phones from more reputable dealers. Once getting the phone, she could insert a SIM card for the carrier of her choice to get service. This still doesn’t explain how she can pay it off if she doesn’t have a credit card. The only ways I’ve found to get a credit card without income is to have a family member with good credit to cosign for your card or open a savings checking account with a minimum balance. I find this second method a little suspect since the accounts I have require a minimum balance of $1000 or more and then have a monthly service fee.

There are some free phones for eligible people. Budget Mobile is a provider of free cell phones with free service for 12 months.

The only answer I can really come up with is that Fiona must have some minimal amount of income she writes in for a credit card. When she says “no income” does that literally mean no cash, or that it’s so small it’s just a drop in the bucket?

More Reading

Budget Mobile FAQ

Baylor: Understanding Poverty