Why poor people have iPhones

This post is dedicated to the asshole doctor who said on the radio this morning that Medicaid patients can afford copays because he sees them using iPhones in the waiting room.

Full disclosure: I don’t have an iPhone. I have a cell phone from the Paleolithic era which has never heard of the internet, takes smeary pictures that may or may not be images of human beings, and has absolutely no clue what to do with an emoticon. This is because I love-hate technology. I do have an iPad, sort of. The iPad, which was given to me by a relative, who bought it used, appears to be one of the first iPads ever made. Half the apps don’t work on it. I use it to entertain my autistic son during doctor’s appointments (it has some of his favorite videos downloaded) and to access the internet during his surgeries/hospital stays. It also serves as our family’s camera. My laptop is only a little bit broken; as long as the screen is at a certain angle, it works just fine.

I have, however, worked alongside other poor people who do have iPhones and I think I may be able to offer some explanation to those who are confused by this phenomenon. (Not that I’m the first person to explain it, but whatever. Obviously it needs to be said over and over.)

First of all, some people buy themselves an iPhone while employed and then lose their job and have to apply for Medicaid. The organization that instantly confiscates iPhones from people who’ve just lost their jobs or otherwise encountered hardship has not yet been invented, although I’m sure someone somewhere is working on it.

Other people, like my former coworkers, still have their jobs; their jobs just don’t pay them much of anything. Often, they are single moms (for a variety of extremely legitimate reasons). Sometimes they’re also supporting grandchildren or extended family. They are putting food on the table (possibly with help from SNAP or WIC), they are paying rent (possibly with help from Section 8), they are (mostly) paying the utilities, but paying for medical care is just beyond them. They are stretched to the financial breaking point. At any given time they are likely to have all of $3 in their checking account – if they have a checking account.

So what are these people doing with iPhones?

For many people, an iPhone serves as a cell phone AND a land line AND a computer AND a camera. Phone and internet are basically essential to maintaining a job in our society, and it’s actually cheaper to have an iPhone than to buy all of those things separately. The iPhone might be a gift or a hand-me-down from a relative, they may have bought it used from a friend, or it might be something that they thought about and decided was a good investment for their family. The iPhone might be the thing that helps them stay awake during 12 hour night shifts, or allows them to communicate via FaceTime with their teenage kids when they have 36 hours of back-to-back shifts at different jobs. (Yes, people do that. It’s insane, it’s probably dangerous, but they do, because they’re trying to survive and take care of their families.) And finally, handing that iPhone to their child might be the thing that saves their sanity on days when they feel utterly, utterly exhausted, and yet they still have to drag their children to an appointment with a shit doctor who is judging them from the moment they step into the waiting room.

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