No, having a smartphone doesn’t mean you’re not poor

If I could, I'd give every one of the clients at our foodbank a smartphone, says Liza Cucco, Hackney Foodbank Manager.

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On Saturday one of Hackney’s most successful sons, Lord Sugar, spoke out on what he sees as the absence of real poverty in Britain today.

Decrying those who claim poverty yet own mobile phones or microwaves, Lord Sugar suggested “If you really want to know what poor is like go and live where I lived in Hackney [as a child], where you didn’t have a shilling for the meter.”

Shillings may now be obsolete, but the problem of having no money for the meter is not.

Most of the people using prepayment meters are the poorest and most vulnerable, yet they pay 22 per cent more each year than those who are eligible for monthly contracts. Recently, I met a low-income woman stuck in a bedsit a little larger than a double bed. Fitted with a meter, the power to her room can cost over £10 per week, double what I pay on contract in my three-bedroom flatshare and 14 per cent of the income of an average jobseeker. She often can’t afford to turn it on.

Her story reflects what we hear on a daily basis at the Foodbank I run in Hackney. More than 3,000 local people were referred to us for three days’ emergency food supplies during the last 12 months. Every day I meet people who prove beyond doubt that poverty is still very real in this community. Replace Lord Sugar’s shilling with today’s pound and you don’t need to return to days of old to know what “poor” is really like.

We work closely with the Hackney Citizens Advice Bureau, who told us that in the last 12 months, 466 people have approached them for help with immediate serious financial crisis, including no money for food, gas or electricity. Nationally, Citizens Advice research found that “one in every six prepayment meter customers has cut off their energy supply because of high costs, difficulty topping up or faulty meters.” The Trussell Trust, who run a UK-wide network of foodbanks like ours, are piloting “fuel banks” at the moment precisely because foodbanks meet people who not only have no money for food, but no money for the meter either.

We meet people who layer on every blanket that they can find in the cold winter months because they can’t afford any heating; we meet mums and dads who sleep huddled together with their children in one room, trying to keep them warm.

Often we have to prepare parcels for people whose choices are limited due to an inability to pay for energy – some foodbanks call them ‘kettle boxes’ and ‘cold boxes’ –  containing food that can be heated using only a kettle, or worse still, just eaten cold.

It can be tempting to look for poverty in 21st century Britain through mid-20thcentury lenses. Even though nearly everything about the way our society functions has changed, we expect that poverty should look exactly as it did in the past. That doesn’t stack up; having a single colour television would have been a symbol of wealth in the 1950’s – today even middle-income working professionals have home cinema systems with surround sound and top-of-the-range TVs, discarding them often as the rapidly changing technology improves. As indicators of wealth change, so do indicators of poverty.

It just doesn’t work to argue that the poor these days “have it good.” A few decades ago a microwave was a luxury but today you can get one for less than £20, or even for free on Gumtree. A second-hand oven on the other hand costs £150+. I know foodbank clients relying on cheap microwaves who can only dream of affording something so luxurious as a working oven. Though at least the microwave means people can heat up basic food for their children.

Microwaves, though, are the least of it.

In the three years I’ve managed Hackney Foodbank, I’ve been endlessly asked why poor people always seem to have smartphones. Phones are used as a false symbol of wealth, and as evidence of a personal budgeting failure if you are supposed to be poor. The reality is that internet access is essential to being able to function effectively in the digital age, and that a basic mobile smartphone is the most affordable internet access you can find when you’re on the poverty line.

Successfully navigating 21st century Britain without interconnectivity is near to impossible; I know this, because despite stereotypes, many foodbank clients don’t actually have smartphones or even email addresses. Those who do have smartphones are not ignorant, they are savvy, choosing to allocate very limited resources to the ubiquitous multi-tool of our time, keeping essential streams of communication open. The moment a phone can’t be topped up or a contract must be cancelled is devastating to a person’s opportunity.

Today, nearly every aspect of life is managed online. Home broadband is pricey for those on low incomes and impossible for the masses of people living in temporary or unstable accommodation due to our affordable housing crisis.  Libraries, the only Internet access some have, are shutting down across the country and have limited opening hours.

Regular internet access is essential to register for benefits, apply for most jobs (and respond in timely manner to emails offering interviews), to access course information in your studies, manage your bank account, communicate with your child’s school or make an appointment at your doctor’s surgery. In our immediate society, you are expected to be available at all times. Constant access may seem a necessity to a businessman, but it is just as important, if not more, to a cleaner on a zero-hours contract who must be available for work at the last minute, navigating to anywhere they need to be and keeping on top of online timecards to ensure they are paid for their work.

Think about the last time your phone broke. Maybe the screen was smashed or you dropped it in a puddle – you were probably grateful for your laptop at home. Getting your access cut off is utter isolation in the internet age. For many, a phone is a lifeline, and there is no backup.

Basic smartphones are inexpensive. You can get one on contract for £8 a month or with a lucky hand-me-down, a sim-only plan for less. Nearly all mobile packages include data as standard, whether pay-as-you-go or contract. It’s actually hard to find one that doesn’t, I checked. We could require every person on the breadline to use an old Nokia from 2003, but they’d be paying for the data regardless, so what’s wrong with an iPhone from 2013?

If it were possible, I would put a well-functioning smartphone in the hands of every foodbank client, as it’s conceivably the best tool possible to assist them in climbing out of poverty. If only we could do something to ensure they’d have money on the meter to charge it.

To Lord Sugar, we’d welcome you to come down to the old neighbourhood for a cup of tea with some of the people who still, despite the passing decades, struggle to make ends meet. Perhaps you can help us figure out how we can give more people in poverty access to the technology that would help them succeed.

Liza Cucco, Hackney Foodbank Manager

This piece was originally published on The New Statesman on 8 October 2015.