By Ann Schnoebelen and Jenni Matasek
Illustration by Kate Foley
Affordable cell phone services help low-income individuals connect to the job market.
Naudwell Kirkendoll, a division director at Community Advocates, has worked to help many Milwaukee, Wis., residents find basic life essentials such as adequate and affordable housing, health care and utilities. But there is one necessary item that many of his clients don’t have when looking for a job — a phone.
“One of the problems has been that those individuals may go apply for a job, but there’s no way to contact those individuals once someone is interested in interviewing them or hiring them,” he says.
Rather than watching anxious job seekers sit all day in the lobby hoping to be contacted, Kirkendoll and his colleagues connect them with subsidized cell phone services through programs like Lifeline Assistance. Operated by the Federal Communications Commission and state public utility commissions, the program gives low-income customers a free phone and 250 minutes a month at a subsidized rate. Some users can save up to $10 per month.
Assurance Wireless, a service from Virgin Mobile, is one provider that works closely with Lifeline. Gary Carter, the company’s manager for national partnerships, says many people take the benefits of connectivity for granted. “What I always like to say when I go into meetings is, ‘Take your cell phone out and throw it away for a week, and tell me how you feel,’” he says. “You can see people starting to get a little bit twitchy because they can’t imagine it.”
For people living every day without a phone number, the advantages of receiving one can be instant and overwhelming. “They’ve hugged me because it’s the first time they’ve ever owned a cell phone,” Carter says. “They’re just beside themselves.”
If the average income for a two-person household falls at or below about $20,000, varying by state, the family can qualify for subsidized cell phone service. Another qualification is participation in government assistance programs like Medicaid or food stamps. To help finance Lifeline, all telecommunications service providers are required by law to contribute to the Universal Service Fund. Although leading providers, such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, choose to make up for this cost through additional charges to regular customers, Carter emphasizes how “the whole country will benefit.” He points to studies like one conducted in February by the New Millennium Research Council. Using polling data from 5,541 subsidized cell phone customers in 22 states, it concluded the services generate an average additional income of $259 per participant, per year. According to the study, this money enters local economies and entire communities profit.
Decades ago, cell phones were an added convenience in the lives of those who could afford them. But in this wired world, it’s clear that cell phones are a necessity. Owning the latest smart phone doesn’t matter much for people using Lifeline services — staying plugged into the job market comes first. “It’s not about the phone,” Carter says. “This is about peace of mind and being able to stay connected in a connected world.”