Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cellphones are now essentials for the poor

Thu Sep 12, 2013

After losing her job as a bookstore manager in New York City two years ago, Ethel Brown, 53, also lost her home. Since then, she’s mostly been living under an acquaintance’s roof while trying to find work, and may need to find another place to live soon.

Though money is tight, Brown makes sure she stays on top of her monthly cellphone bill for a $35 prepaid plan from Boost Mobile, which provides her with unlimited minutes and texts. Sometimes she cuts back on buying a cup of coffee or extra food, to ensure she can pay her cellphone bill.

With both her employment and living situation in flux, Brown needs her mobile phone. She uses it to follow up on job and housing leads, and to keep in touch with public assistance agencies, which sometimes follow up with phone calls instead of asking applicants to come into an office. Having a cellphone also helps Brown stay in touch with her family and friends.


"Today every family must have a telephone if it is to contact emergency services," Linda Gibbs, New York City’s deputy mayor for health and human services, wrote in a 2007 poverty report.


Brown went through a period of a few months where she had no mobile phone, and she said it was awful.

"You have to depend on somebody else to take your messages and when you do go over and speak to the person and say ‘Hey, did anybody call?’… Hopefully they’ll tell you, or they wrote it down," Brown said.

And that old standby, the pay phone, is not as reliable — or available — as it once was. In March 2012, the FCC said there were 243,487 payphones in the U.S., down from more than 2 million in March 2000.

"You try to get to a payphone, you can’t even use it, it’s not working," Brown said. "Or you put the quarters in, and next thing you know, if you don’t have enough, the quarters are gone."


In San Francisco, Lifeline case managers and clients alike report that the wireless subsidies do make a big difference, says Bevan Dufty, director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement for San Francisco, especially when it comes to being available to make and confirm job appointments.


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