Perspectives on Poverty

[I posted a truncated version of what follows as a Tweet-thread.]

Poverty is something I think about frequently. Working in an urban public library system, many of our patrons are poor. The community we serve has significant neighborhoods of poverty. It’s our responsibility to understand what our patrons need, what life is really like for them.

This is an issue that’s always on my mind but it seems particularly important to speak out about it now.

There’s a group of kids—teens and tweens—who hang out at a local library. Sometimes they hang out at the McDonald’s down the street. These kids clearly live in poverty.

All of them have smartphones.

I’ve heard library patrons and customers at McDonald’s comment on this: “How can they afford smartphones if they’re so poor? It’s irresponsible and a waste of money!”

People see these kids sitting there with their smartphones and assume they’re playing games or visiting social media sites. And they wonder, “Why aren’t they using this free time to get a job and earn some money? It’s irresponsible and a waste of time!”

You want to know what these kids spend most of their time actually doing on their phones?

Homework. They use their smartphones for school.

None of them have computers at home. None of them have internet at home. They’re all too poor to afford it.

Students are required to have a computer for school. They’re required to do homework online, to turn in assignments online, to participate in online class discussions, and to email their teachers.

Their smartphone is literally the only computer any of them have.

All of their phones are used, none of them are new. None of these kids paid for their phones: a couple qualified for theirs through a charity program and at least one got it as a hand-me-down from a relative. None of them have data plans because none of them can afford it. All of these kids are dependent on open WiFi networks to get online, which is why they spend so much time hanging out at the library and McDonald’s—free public WiFi is the only reliable internet connection they have access to outside of school.

They’re required to have a computer and to go online every day for school. A free, used smartphone with no data plan, and relying on free public WiFi via the library or McDonald’s, is their cheapest option.

People tend to understand the world only through the lens of their own experience. We tend to assume that the world is the same for everyone as it is for us. So if an item is a luxury in my world, it’s natural for me to assume it’s a luxury for everyone.

For me, a smartphone is a toy people have in addition to a home computer or laptop. For me, a home internet connection is a standard utility, like electricity and water, and it’s how I watch TV. I see a poor person with a smartphone, I see a poor person with a luxury item, a toy. Of course that doesn’t make sense: how can they spend money on expensive luxury items if they’re poor? How can they spend their money on that and not on necessities?

It’s clearly irresponsible.

It doesn’t occur to me that someone living in poverty doesn’t have a computer or internet access at home. It doesn’t occur to me that their smartphone isn’t in addition to a home computer, but instead of one. It doesn’t occur to me that they didn’t pay full price for it. It certainly never occurs to me that someone might not have a data plan.

I would never think to use my smartphone as my primary computer for school or work, so it never occurs to me that someone else might have to.

You have to have a computer for school and work. You have to have internet access to apply for jobs, to do banking, to interact with the government, to file taxes, to do homework, etc. You can’t fully function in society without being connected.

A hand-me-down smartphone is the cheapest option available for someone living in poverty to get a computer and to get online. It’s the most financially responsible option available.

A poor person with a smartphone isn’t evidence of how irresponsible poor people are. It’s an example of how hard poor people work to make due with what the rest of us write off as a toy.

This is why empathy matters. This is why we must encourage open dialog, cultural exchange, a robust culture of reading. We must teach each other to imagine how the world can be different for different people. We must broaden our scope of understanding.

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