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Please don't judge that poor person using a fancy cellphone

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured in Vox, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters.

Why I was scared to get a smartphone while I was on food stamps

I got my first smartphone in the mail a couple of weeks ago. Coincidentally it was the same day my food stamps ended.

I seriously considered the purchase for about a year, and didn't want to make the jump for several reasons. One, I loved my flip phone. It was little, it did the job and I had a laptop that I could take places if needed. More importantly though, it was inexpensive. Since I've been struggling to make ends meet for quite some time, most months I simply couldn't afford the assumed large extra cost.

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But my financial situation had improved, and when I had an upcoming business trip that involved renting a car, I knew it was time to take the plunge. It's probably one of the greatest things I've done for myself and my family in quite some time, despite my fears.

I'd been scared to buy a smartphone earlier, and not just because of the cost or my fear that I'd become addicted to it. Rather, I was scared of people's judgment. Next to elaborate tattoos, smartphones are the first thing pointed out when a person on government assistance is accused of taking advantage of the system. Smartphones are seen as a major luxury item in the general public's eyes, and not something a person on food stamps should have.

Turns out, as a freelance writer, having a smartphone that buzzes and dings whenever I receive a message or email frees me from obsessively glancing at my laptop screen. I no longer have to worry about going places with Wi-Fi because I can write in a Word document and still receive emails. Nursing my 1-year-old is easier as I can sit anywhere in my house, or shut us in the bedroom and still work. When I traveled to an unfamiliar place, I had maps and bus schedules and business hours and phone numbers at my fingertips. It helps me work better.

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I recently wrote an article asking why the poor can't have nice things. I admit: I thought it was incredibly ironic that on the day my food stamps ended, my new smartphone came in the mail. Now that I've had one for a while, I believe that people in poverty need smartphones more than anyone else. It's a resource, a necessity, to stay plugged in and available, but also to know where the resources are.

Cell phones are a necessity, especially as pay phones are becoming extinct. For people in poverty, a cell phone can mean a chance to apply for a job by having a number to give for contact information. Many applications are online, and a missed phone call or email could mean a missed job. Resources, schedules, open hours of operation, listed phone numbers and bus routes should be available to everyone, not just people with the financial ability to afford handheld devices.

Some take it a step further and believe we should provide the homeless with free smartphones. They believe if the homeless have smartphones, they could participate in a program that would identify the location of where they sleep and what medical services they need. There would also be the additional benefits of offering people a chance to stay in touch with friends and family or potential employers, and it would provide much-needed statistics to help a hidden population.

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As someone who thought smartphones were for the elite, the important or those with means, I take a new stand: Having internet access in your pocket is vital in getting, keeping and performing a job. It could even mean finding the real problems surrounding homelessness and a possible solution to help end it.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

Why I was scared to get a smartphone while I was on food stamps
Image: Keith Ewing/Flickr
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