Friday, July 17, 2009

From Mobile Phones To A Poverty Debate

The folks over at MobileCrunch highlighted an interesting plan proposed by Colorado:

Thousands of low-income Coloradans reliant on public assistance could get a free cellphone under a plan before the state Public Utilities Commission.

If approved, the plan by TracFone Wireless in Miami would make Colorado the 17th state it has settled into with free cell service for the indigent, a form of wireless welfare that proponents say taps into one of the last untapped markets for the telecom technology.
TracFone's subsidized program, called Safelink Wireless, gives users at least 68 minutes of free cell service each month — in Colorado, it would be 83 minutes — and unlimited access to 911 service even if the minutes are used up.

It's an interesting concept and one that I think could have some serious merit. I've often wondered if there was value in having a completely connected community, one where the city or town could reliably broadcast text messages to everyone (like we do with Arlington Alert - except you would know that everyone had a cell phone). Heck, everyone in the town - rich and poor - could use tools like twitter to engage in a civic conversation.

While the original article is interesting, it's the comments that are truly revealing. A good chunk of them are quite angry about this proposal, and chalk it up as yet another luxury give-away to the poor, all part of the Obama philosophy.

My response to these people are two fold:

  • I think this notion expressed in the comments that people who are on welfare are simply too lazy to work is way too simplistic. Sure, there are people who abuse the system - but life is way more complicated than that. People fall on hard times, that's why we have a social safety net in the first place.
  • What if the program works? For example, what if giving folks phones makes it easier for them to get a job? In other words, we should make decisions about whether to have a program like this not based on some emotion reaction, but based on its efficacy. Let's model the program out - does it seem like it will be of value? If so, try it and measure it. If it's proving to be successful, keep it - otherwise ditch it.

I think this comment sums up my point pretty well:

I sought work while homeless in the 1980s. I had a friend with a phone who posed as a roommate and if not for that I would have stayed living in my car much longer than six months. And I was employed, part time, just couldn't get move-in cash raised. Employers don't typically hire homeless folks over people with a stable address, or at least stable looking. Not for a job you'd want for more than a day.
Having a real phone gets that person into a job, paying taxes, contributing, and off welfare.

Isn't that the goal? a phone is a tool, and in this case a tool to get people off the dole.

But I guess it is easier to hate on the poor and your assumptions of how they wound up in bad situations.

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