'It's not a BlackBerry, but it's helping me for now': Cellphones are now essentials for the poor
After losing her job as a bookstore manager in New York City two years ago, Ethel Brown, 53, also lost her home. Since then, she's mostly been living under an acquaintance's roof while trying to find work, and may need to find another place to live soon.
Though money is tight, Brown makes sure she stays on top of her monthly cellphone bill for a $35 prepaid plan from Boost Mobile, which provides her with unlimited minutes and texts. Sometimes she cuts back on buying a cup of coffee or extra food, to ensure she can pay her cellphone bill.
With both her employment and living situation in flux, Brown needs her mobile phone. She uses it to follow up on job and housing leads, and to keep in touch with public assistance agencies, which sometimes follow up with phone calls instead of asking applicants to come into an office. Having a cellphone also helps Brown stay in touch with her family and friends.
More from NBC:
'Nursery school dropouts': Poverty as a health crisis for many of America's kids
'No one should have to work for free': Is this the end of the unpaid internship?
On the edge: A family fights to keep its home
"It's basic. I call it my 'Blueberry,'" Brown said, describing her feature phone. "It's not a BlackBerry, but it's helping me for now."
Once considered a luxury, the cellphone has become one of the most popular communication technologies in the world. As a result, many people — regardless of income level — view the cellphone as more of a necessity. Before landlines became essential, they, too, were once used by the privileged few.
"Today every family must have a telephone if it is to contact emergency services," Linda Gibbs, New York City's deputy mayor for health and human services, wrote in a 2007 poverty report. "If it is to have access to news, information and culture a TV, radio, and newspapers are essential. This was not always true, but it is true now. And soon (if not now) we will need to add cellphones and access to the Internet to that list."
(Read more: For the poor, the costs of life can be higher)
Six years later, 91 percent of American adults own a cellphone, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center; more than half of those are smartphones. Over a third of American homes have even become cell only, according to a 2012 National Health Interview Survey.
Phone companies are scrambling to meet the diverse demand. On Tuesday, Apple launched two new iPhone models, one of which is priced at a more affordable $99, when purchased with a 2-year plan.
"Mobile communication is part of the structural part of society. We expect people to have cellphones when we're in relationships with them, when we're working with them," said Scott Campbell, Pohs Professor of Telecommunications at the University of Michigan. "Otherwise expectations are broken, expectations are unfulfilled, and that's a problem."
Campbell added that there are three sets of basic advantages to having a cellphone: safety and security, the ability to coordinate activities, and the chance to be social.
This is the case for Brown. In addition to maintaining it for networking and possible emergencies, she uses her 'Blueberry' to keep up with social issues. "If you don't keep up that way, too, you feel like you're going insane," she said.
(Read more: Richest 1% earn biggest share since Roaring '20s)
Brown is a client at LIFT, an organization that aims to help its community members achieve economic stability. Advocates at the organization also believe cellphone access is crucial to community members, especially for those clients facing a housing difficulty.
"Many of our clients walk through our doors and they've just received a marshal's notice, or a lock has been put on their doors, and they're trying to figure out next steps and what to do," Rachel Jones, program coordinator at LIFT-The Bronx, told NBC News.
"When your home is in jeopardy, and you are at risk of losing something that should in theory be stable in your life, like a house and a roof over your head, and when a landline is connected to that, then that is essentially not as secure as you would think."
Brown went through a period of a few months where she had no mobile phone, and she said it was awful.
"You have to depend on somebody else to take your messages and when you do go over and speak to the person and say 'Hey, did anybody call?'… Hopefully they'll tell you, or they wrote it down," Brown said.
And that old standby, the pay phone, is not as reliable—or available—as it once was. In March 2012, the FCC said there were 243,487 payphones in the U.S., down from more than 2 million in March 2000.
"You try to get to a payphone, you can't even use it, it's not working," Brown said. "Or you put the quarters in, and next thing you know, if you don't have enough, the quarters are gone."
FCC's low-income program
While cheap pre-paid cellphone plans are increasingly available commercially, there are also low-income programs, operated with subsidies from the FCC's Lifeline Assistance program, that people can qualify for to get a low monthly rate. The program began in 1985 by providing discounted landline service, and expanded to mobile services in the mid to late 2000s.
While Lifeline wireless providers do include major companies like AT&T and Verizon, the offerings are territorial, and not all carriers offer the subsidies in all locations. In California, approved providers include Virgin Mobile's Assurance Wireless, which gives users a free cell phone with 250 free texts and 250 free minutes to start.
In San Francisco, Lifeline case managers and clients alike report that the wireless subsidies do make a big difference, says Bevan Dufty, director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement for San Francisco, especially when it comes to being available to make and confirm job appointments. The city even plans to one day allow homeless phone owners to check for available shelters, and receive important messages via text.
Nevertheless, the Lifeline program does have more than its share of critics, largely because it's open to abuse by both customers and carriers alike. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., first called on the FCC to provide stronger oversight of the program in 2011 after she received a notice for a free cellphone. As a U.S. Senator whose salary alone is $174,000, McCaskill is not eligible for Lifeline. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., another critic of the program, has introduced a bill in Congress to put an end to Lifeline's subsidies for free mobile phone service.
(Read more: The new American poor: 4 in 5 live in danger of it)
"Now that people who are some of the most vulnerable in our society are gaining access to a cellphone, I've heard some political voices saying that's bad, Dufty said. "I think that's bigotry. The only people who are gaining access [to Lifeline] right now are the ones most in need of communication to change their circumstances."
Lifeline does not subsidize Ethel Brown, however. Because of the rules in place to prevent fraudulent behavior—particularly one that prohibits two Lifeline recipients from living at the same address—Brown can't qualify for assistance, she said. That's true even though the person who shares her home with Brown belongs to a different household, so to speak.
"She has her own budget, I have my own budget," Brown said.
Nevertheless, Brown's $35-per-month bill is among the lowest cost for unlimited voice and messaging. And having access to mobile technology in a world where everything is interconnected is key. And the team at LIFT-The Bronx agrees.
"After working here, I really have a great understanding of not the term cellphone, but a mobile phone," Jones said. "It's constantly on you, and it's not necessarily attached to your home, and that's something that I definitely took for granted personally."
—By Radhika Marya, NBC News