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The iPhone is not a luxury good

iPhone 6

This morning, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) suggested that the Republicans’ proposed Affordable Care Act replacement would require Americans to “make a choice” in order to pay for health care. “Maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to spend hundreds of dollars on, maybe they should invest in their own health care,” he told CNN. There are a lot of things wrong with this statement, including the fact that average health care spending per capita is thousands, not hundreds, of dollars annually. But one of the most subtly frustrating details is how “that new iPhone” is used as a stand-in for frivolous luxury — not a central fixture for many people’s lives.

Chaffetz is the latest of many people to imply that you can’t be poor (or simply not-wealthy) if you own a smartphone. A certain subset of internet users gets enraged every time a homeless person or refugee shows up with one, or when the government funds them for low-income Americans. But a smartphone is probably one of the most useful and efficient pieces of technology you can buy. It's a miniature computer that the average person consults dozens of times a day — not just for sending selfies and watching cat videos, but for arranging childcare, keeping in touch with family, staying on top of work emails, reading books, and managing classwork.

In some cases, smartphone ownership isn’t just nice, it’s practically required to participate in the workforce. Mobile broadband is the only way that many low-income Americans access the internet, where companies are increasingly keeping their job listings. Workplace “bring your own device” policies assume employees already have the equipment to stay in touch at all times.

Granted, Chaffetz didn’t say “smartphone” here, he said iPhone, one of the most expensive smartphone models. The average Android phone costs around a third of the iPhone’s roughly $650 price tag, and if price is your biggest concern, you can get one for under $200. But even leaving aside the existence of cheaper secondhand iPhones, there are still valid, practical reasons to spend that extra money. Maybe your friends and family use iMessage, and you don’t want to be left out of conversations. Maybe you’re worried about the vulnerabilities of budget Android phones that run on outdated software or get important updates late, something privacy expert Christopher Soghoian has called the digital-security divide. Or maybe you want something that repair shops can quickly fix if it gets broken — when a button got stuck on my own HTC phone last year, some stores refused to even look at it.

My point isn’t that you absolutely must own an iPhone; in fact, I haven’t had one for years. It’s that we shouldn’t be using the iPhone as shorthand for dumb, spendthrift purchases, any more than we’d shame someone for not picking the cheapest possible car when a slightly more expensive model fit their needs. And to be clear, we’re not talking about the difference between a Kia and a Ferrari. $450 won’t even pay for an emergency room Band-Aid application. (If you want to spend $15,000 on a Vertu, that’s on you.)

None of this should distract from the basic stupidity of saying that a little belt-tightening will offset the tremendous cost of health care, or the sociopathy of believing that people only deserve treatment if they live like monks. But Chaffetz’s choice of example perpetuates the outdated idea that smartphones are still somehow more optional than, say, a car or landline telephone. That notion makes it easier to downplay information technology’s overall importance, and get away with things like cutting low-income broadband aid or gutting consumer internet protections. And even if you don’t care about the iPhone, that’s worth calling out.