Friday, May 6, 2011

Cell-Phone-Only Households: A Product of Poverty? Conservatism? Immigration?

According to a new report issued by the CDC:
As of the first half of 2010, more than one in four American households (26.6%) had only wireless telephones— an eightfold increase over just 6 years. The prevalence of such ‘‘wireless-only’’ households now markedly exceeds the prevalence of households with only landline telephones (12.9%), and this difference is expected to grow.
What's most interesting is that the percentage of wireless-only households as a percentage of all households varies wildly by state, from a low of 12.8% in Rhode Island to 35.2% in Arkansas:

And here's a detailed breakdown by state:

What might be the cause of this disparity? Poverty might be a cause, as many of the most wireless-only states are also among the poorest states in the U.S.:

Or it could be that conservatism leads people to cut the wires, as comparing the proportion of wireless-only households to a map of presidential election outcomes from 1996-2008 also seems to imply some kind of correlation:

Of course, I'm not implying causality here, as there are all sorts of confounders that this cursory blog post isn't taking into account. But, it's interesting (and funny) to think about.

My personal guess as to why the pattern of wireless-only households is distributed as it is relates most strongly to poverty and secondly to immigrants coming from countries that never had high wired telephone penetration (i.e. people went from having no phones to having cell phones only). I would also guess that the poorest and most immigrant-infused states are also some of the youngest states, and young households make up much of the wireless-only households - e.g. my own household, which is also wireless-only, even though we live in a relatively wired area.


  1. Another thing that may be creating a high rate of wireless-only households among the poorest states is the government-subsidized cell phone program. If you qualify for food stamps, you qualify for a free cell phone with (I think) 200 minutes per month. These phones can also have minutes added, and from what I've been told you can buy a card for $5 that gives you an additional 450 minutes. I think you also qualify if you receive SSI or disabilty. Tons of people here have these phones that may not be able to afford any other way to call for help in a medical emergency, or stay in contact with their doctors, the school system, etc.

  2. Ah yes, I'd forgotten about that - Assurance Wireless and SafeLink, I think the two services are called, and I think you qualify for them if you qualify for any of a number of other government programs (SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, TANF, etc.). I'm sure that the availability of free/reduced price cell phone service drives up the number of wireless-only households in poor states - if your house has cellular reception, I can't imagine why you would choose a subsidized land-line over a subsidized cell phone.

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