Food Or Phone Choice Facing Low Income Consumers

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The beeps of the register at the food store checkout tell part of the story – how many items in the shopping cart.  But in the back pocket of this shopper’s jeans is a cell phone that might be limiting the amount she’ll be able to spend.

Choosing what to spend your money on is a life-long struggle for most and as the cost of cell phone services increases it naturally competes for those dollars.  But a curious professor in Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University looking over data contained in the National Health Interview Survey saw an interesting trend.  Those in poverty with both cell phones and landlines or wired phones may have fewer budget struggles than those with just wireless service. 

“What that research shows is among low income consumers those that have cut the cord and go wireless only are more likely to be food insecure meaning they miss meals, they cut back on groceries as opposed to those who are also low income and have a wireline and a wireless phone," said Trevor Roycroft a professor of Information and Telecommunication Systems at Ohio University.  

“So the wireless phone, because it's all usage oriented tends to drive the costs up and that's naturally just going to cut into consumer budgets and they have to cut back somewhere,” he said.

The reason appears to be in the flat-rate charged for wired-phone conversations.  Those with both wired and wireless service pay less per month because they apparently stay away from cell phones for longer and more expensive conversations

The Federal Lifeline Program makes wireless service available to some low-income consumers but the number of minutes is limited with the user required to pay overages.  Roycroft says one solution would be for the program to support both wireline and wireless phones.

“Wireless is a necessity and given the pricing it's important to find a way for enable consumers to – low income consumers to not cut into their food budgets.”