• Smartphones may have been a luxury ten years ago, but they've become a necessity for gaining employment and staying connected. (Moment RF/Getty)Source: Moment RF/Getty
Here’s why you should think twice before you pass judgement on someone's right to own a smartphone or other ‘luxury’ item.
Michaela Morgan

7 Dec 2017 - 4:31 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2017 - 4:59 PM

Our sympathy for disadvantaged members of society often comes attached to a binding set of terms – a specific ‘poverty criteria’, which people on welfare should first meet in order to be worthy of our compassion and support. This select set of conditions may require disadvantaged people to be destitute, for reasons beyond their own control, living a meagre existence devoid of all ‘luxury’ items and social comforts. 

People who practice such a belief may say things like: “she mustn’t really be poor if she can afford to run a car,” or “how did he manage to buy an iPhone while living on taxpayer-funded Centrelink payments?”

But the truth is that for many disadvantaged Australians, ‘non-essential items’ like motor vehicles and smartphones are, in fact, not luxurious products at all. According to various welfare experts, they are essential goods, required by most people in 2017 to find or keep a job, access medical assistance, battle social isolation, attend crucial appointments, stay in contact with family, and stay safe during an emergency.

“Things like cars and smartphones are essential to participating in the community but [they are] also for helping yourself get out of a situation of poverty."

Smartphone: luxury or necessity?

While smartphones may have been considered an extravagant purchase years ago, these days smartphone usage in Australia has become ubiquitous. According to recent research from Telstra, over 90 per cent of all Australian mobile users have a smartphone.  

Senior operations manager of Health at St Vincent de Paul, David Kelly, adds that items like smartphones are a powerful tool that can be used by people living in poverty to break the cycle and access paid employment opportunities. 

“Things like cars and smartphones are essential to participating in the community but [they are] also for helping to get yourself out of a situation of poverty,” says Kelly in the SBS online video The Truth About Welfare.

Assistant pastor at Sydney’s Wayside Chapel, Jon Owen agrees. “These are no longer optional extras in the society we live in. 

“If we want to be moving towards employment, if we want to be maintaining employment, if we want to trying to keep up with what’s going on in the world, then these no are no longer luxury items.”

“For me it’s essential,” pensioner Pamela Pearce says of her mobile phone. “I need it because my kids need to contact me,” she says. 

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Access to a car: luxury or necessity?

Back in 2014, Australia’s former Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey proclaimed that poor people could not afford to drive cars – a statement that was later discredited by some experts as misleading.

Research director at University of NSW’s Social Policy Research Centre, kylie valentine*, explains that car ownership should not be reserved for the wealthy, as a motor vehicle in and of itself is not a luxury item.

“A lot of people need a car for work or for ongoing health stuff or various other things,” valentine says. 

“Public transport systems often aren’t designed for people [living] with anything that’s a little bit ‘out of the ordinary’.”

“So that’s why I had a car, to do the shopping and stuff like that. Some people do need a car, but not a flash car, just one that’ll get you from A-to-B.”

Pearce, who also appears in the video and has lived experience of disadvantage, says the stereotype just isn’t true. She says it was crucial that she ran a car while members of her family were in the hospital.

“I had a son and I had a husband who weren’t well,” she says. “Travelling was too far to go by buses and it would take all day to get there.

“So that’s why I had a car, to do the shopping and stuff like that. Some people do need a car, but not a flash car, just one that’ll get you from A-to-B.”’

According to an SBS interview with the chief economist at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Bruce Hockman, one of the determinants of socio-economic disadvantage is lacking access to a car.

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“The characteristics of areas in the most advantaged regions are more likely to have people with more years of education and higher incomes,” Hockman told SBS “and residents are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to have motor vehicles.”

This reinforces Owen’s point that these essential items are crucial to help end the cycle of disadvantage.

“These aren’t simple issues and they’re not luxury options,” says Owen. “We need them to get around in this ever increasingly connected world."

If you or someone you know needs support, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand

Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

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