Poverty and cellphones

Sometimes I hear people say that “poor” people in America are really just spoiled because objectively their standard of living is so high–they have expensive luxuries like TVs, computers, refrigerators, and cellphones; objects that would never been seen in the poorest areas of the world.  “How poor could they be?” is the implied question.

Well I have a different perspective on this issue after listening to an interview with an author who wrote a book about the largest refugee camp in the world in Kenya.  This camp has been around for decades, and mostly supports Somalis who fled the poverty and chaos of Somalia only to find poverty and hunger in Kenya.  Funding for food in this camp of half a million people is so limited that despite UN involvement, most are chronically malnourished and some still die of starvation.  Most live in shacks or rotting tents.  There is no plumbing or sewage system.  It is a shocking level of poverty that they cannot escape because they cannot leave the camp.  

And yet, the author notes that in this environment many people still have, of all things, cellphones.  He says that they would “go hungry for a week” if it meant access to Facebook.  Why? Because cellphones mean connection to the outside world, the ability to communicate with family, and to explore the world virtually because they cannot actually explore anything beyond the camp. 

What this example teaches us is that the psychology of poverty does not simply revolve around basic needs like clothing, food, and shelter.  Even a starving person has priorities beyond just the need to eat–the need to connect, to share, to express, to explore, are just as important, because these are qualities of being human and not just an animal fighting to survive.  The fact that many poor people in America have such apparent luxuries as cellphones and Internet access is not an indication of wealth or misplaced priorities, it is a statement about human nature, that the definition of “basic needs” goes beyond those that keep us alive, and extends into those that help us to feel human.