A while back we wrote about how people are outraged to see refugees with smartphones. Now it appears that certain American politicians are outraged to see poor Americans with smartphones when they could be paying for their health care instead.

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah was on CNN, saying:

Americans have choices — and they've got to make a choice. So maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.They've got to make those decisions themselves.


Later on Fox News he tried to walk it back a bit, but in some ways dug a bigger hole for himself:

As an American, you have got to make choices so sometimes, you have to make decisions in your life and where to make those investments… as an adult you get to make those decisions and live by those consequences.

Many are outraged by these comments, primarily because he's implying that the poor make bad choices and are responsible for their own fate. Philip Bump writes in the Washington Post:

It’s much easier to deal with poverty if you can convince yourself that the impoverished brought it on themselves. Nearly everyone would concur that those who suffer from poverty through no fault of their own deserve support from others, either through nonprofit or public sector assistance. But if they’re poor because of their own bad decisions? They have to fend for themselves.

Or as a tweeter summarized: “This sounds like fomenting class resentment: poor are poor because they're irresponsible"

But it is missing another part of the story, which is how important smartphones have become to poorer people. Chaffetz likely has a computer on his desk at home and at his office, a tablet somewhere and a phone when he's on the road. He probably has a couple of land lines and even a fax line still hooked up.

The phone is only one tool in his communication armada.


A lot of poorer people have dropped the land line because they cannot afford both. The phone is their computer, and they use it for everything. One tweeter who used to sell phones described what some of his customers used them for:

…apply for jobs. Set up unemployment, save the last voice messages of their dying partners. Set up emails. Apply for childcare, WIC. An ex-con wept in my arms because he could get photos and music. I saw a coworker spend 6 hours with a woman who was nasty and distracted turns out ? Her husband of 30+ years had just died while she was being treated for cancer and he had sent her messages EVERY DAY. And people applied for health care on those cell phones. … this isn’t about planning, it's about punishment.

For people who have many options, a smartphone is a luxury. For people who have few, it's often a necessity. Bump at the Post gets this, writing that “a smartphone is not a luxury, it’s a critical tool of modern society. The newest iPhone isn’t critical, but some smartphone is, particularly in households without Internet access otherwise.”

Seriously, people shouldn’t have to make a choice between health care and calling their mom.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.