Subsidizing Isolation in a Global Pandemic
There’s been no shortage of hand-wringing this year as our nation grapples with COVID-19 and its ripple effects, many of which are not medical: the threat of a collapsed economy, government overreach, and increased seclusion along with its affiliated detriments have been concerns. At the epicenter of this worry has been the most vulnerable among us, including low-income Americans. Regarding increased seclusion, how might we mitigate the harms of isolation for those already more vulnerable? Many have advocated for increased access to technology via government subsidized Lifeline cellphones as an innovative way for the poor to remain connected. But is the antidote to isolation that simple?
I’m reminded of a recent experience I had volunteering at a local homeless shelter. To be friendly, I struck up a conversation with one of the residents, who shared with me unfounded confidence in the stability of his current romantic relationship. I challenged him a bit: "How do you know your relationship is as healthy as you think?" Immediately, his eyes glazed over and, wordlessly, he pulled his phone out and began scrolling absentmindedly. He ignored my presence and left my question hanging in the air, unanswered. It made him uncomfortable, so he dodged it — and his smartphone made it easy.
How could this man, jobless and staying at a homeless shelter, afford a smartphone? He and other shelter residents can have smartphones courtesy of a government program called Lifeline. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implemented the Lifeline program in 1984 to help low-income households with what was deemed an essential service: phone access. It originally covered a small portion of low-income residents’ landline phone bills. But, over time, the program ballooned, with greater benefits for an ever-increasing number of people — now, many low-income people qualify for free smart phones with free or very cheap service plans, complete with unlimited talk and text and free data. The government imposes a tax on phone companies to pay for the program. The phone companies then pass the expense to their customers via the Universal Service Fund, an additional charge on every conventional customer’s phone bill.
That night, I spoke with two other residents interested in joining the Forge, the shelter’s long-term men’s program. I encouraged their interest — what could be better for these men than a program that promoted virtue, work, and self-sufficiency? But both expressed trepidation, which I pressed them on: Why choose the path of chronic homelessness over the path out of poverty? Both men cited the same reason: “I couldn’t give up my cell phone.” Participants in the Forge program are asked to give up their phone for six months to enable a distraction-free environment.
That evening at the shelter, I kept thinking: unintended consequences. On the surface, Lifeline seems to be a good and even necessary program. What could be wrong with providing low-income citizens with means to call about job opportunities, schedule doctor appointments, and stay connected to family? But the insidious problem lies in the risk of overuse and its concomitant issues.
Phone addiction is not limited to the poor. A 2015 study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions discovered a significant correlation between the extent of smart phone use and depression among adult students. However, the negative effects appear to accrue disproportionately to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. Other studies link heavy phone usage with anxiety, depression, and social isolation, maladies which already disproportionately affect the poor and are on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Robert Putnam in his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone indicates that social isolation is especially harmful to the economically disadvantaged; conversely, strong social connections, particularly outside an impoverished person’s socioeconomic tier, are invaluable in their potential to leverage him or her out of poverty. Indeed, the poor have the most acute need for the benefits afforded by a variety of real social connections, including better work opportunities, a sense of community and belonging, and an improved outlook on life — and significant evidence shows smartphones inhibit our ability to make these vital connections. Is it wise to provide a device that’s strongly linked with social isolation and depression as a combatant against social isolation and depression, especially during such a tumultuous time when such issues are already exacerbated? Is it even logical?
The Lifeline program is a sobering reminder of what seasoned poverty fighters know well: Good intentions don’t always yield good results. Knowing what will really help is a job that can only be accomplished by local, knowledgeable, compassionate charity. As we consider the role government should play in mitigating the insidious effects of a global pandemic, remember that blanket solutions may create more problems than they solve. That which is intended to alleviate isolation and its attendant depression may indeed be fostering it.
Savannah Aleckson is SW Missouri Regional Director of the True Charity Initiative.