In the UK, more than 14 million people are living in poverty – that’s over 20% of the population. Many of those people living in poverty also have a smartphone. How? If you can’t afford to heat your home or put food on the table, how can you justify having an iPhone?
It’s pretty common to hear people say it’s irresponsible for people living on low incomes or receiving benefits to spend their money on luxury tech.
But think about this.
Twenty years ago, an unbreakable Nokia brick was enough to keep in touch with your friends, family, or work. You cashed cheques in an actual bank. You put credit on your phone at the local newsagents. You applied for jobs by popping your CV in a postbox. You checked the weather on Teletext.
But in 2019, it’s different.
For one thing, smartphones are a lot cheaper. You can get a basic smartphone contract for as little as £10 a month, which is a lot more cost-effective than pay as you go (if you can get a contract).
More importantly, in 2019 you need the internet. And a basic smartphone is the most affordable way of accessing the internet.
Home broadband is expensive. You’ll need a laptop or tablet to access it. And if you’re currently living in temporary or unstable accommodation, setting it up just isn’t an option. So without a smartphone, your only internet access is a library – and if you’re lucky enough to be near a library that isn’t shutting down, you’ll likely only be able to get a 30 minute internet slot per day.
And that small window of internet just isn’t enough.
To register for benefits, apply for most jobs, or manage your bank account, you need a phone and you need the internet. In the UK, you can only apply for and manage your Universal Credit claim online – making systems digital-first might cut overall costs and streamline services, but for many people it makes accessing them impossible.
2019 expects constant access.
If you’re a delivery driver on a zero hours contract, you need to be able to pick up shifts last minute and navigate your way to wherever you need to go. How do you do that without a smartphone?
If you’re managing a really tight budget, it’s much easier to pay really close attention to every penny going in and out of your bank account if you’re able to use online or mobile banking. How do you do that without a smartphone?
And if you’ve been moved out of an area where all your friends and family live because there’s a shortage of social housing, it makes more sense to stay in touch over a free messaging app than to waste money paying for a landline or texts. How do you do that without a smartphone?
These days, a smartphone isn’t a luxury – it’s a lifeline.
Instead of weighing in on how households with just £50 a week try to stretch budgets to cover the cost of an essential like a smartphone, we should put our energy into looking at why people’s incomes are so low, and using that evidence to campaign for change so people don’t need food banks in the future. After all, in order for people to budget, they must have something to budget with.
Twenty years ago, a high-tech smartphone was an indicator of wealth. You didn’t need one to succeed, or survive. Now, in a hyper-connected world, being unable to access technology means poverty is more able to tighten its grip on your life. Many people living in poverty don’t have smartphones, despite needing them. Those that do have them because they have had to use some of their limited resources to stay connected, whether that’s to family, work, or the benefits system.
So it’s not: “How can you afford to have a smartphone if you live in poverty?” It’s: “How can you afford not to?”.
Garry Lemon is director of policy and research at the Trussell Trust.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.