Shift of Poor People to Mobile Phones May Result in Undercounting in Legal Needs Studies

The Center for Disease Control has just released some stats on the relationship between poverty and cell phone use.  As they put it:

  • Adults living in poverty (56.2%) were more likely than adults living near poverty (46.1%) and higher income adults (36.6%) to be living in households with only wireless telephones.

Given that it is harder to track and poll cell phones, and given that most legal needs studies rely heavily on phone polling, this means that in future legal needs studies may be under counting the legal needs of the poor.

Moreover, this may not be corrected by poverty weighting of samples.  As the Washington Post summarizes the findings with respect to health:

But undercounting wireless users can skew crucial health survey information, such as how many American adults are diabetics, heavy smokers, or people who have a reliable place to find health care. And, as it turns out, the NHIS has found several statistically significant differences between wireless-only and landline homes.

Adults in wireless-only households are, for example, less likely to have received their flu shots and are more likely to have faced financial barriers to health care. They’re also more likely to smoke and drink heavily. And those correlations stick even when researchers control for factors such as age, income level and home ownership status.

“This suggests to us that there’s something about these people’s personalities that may lead to health risk behaviors,” Blumberg said.

It may well be that there is a similar effect with legal problems, and we should be researching it. (Although I would prefer to think about it as “circumstances” rather than personalities.”)

For example, those without landlines may be “frequent movers” and perhaps not always voluntarily.

We need research on this.  Given that community-based legal aid programs collect phone numbers, one interesting study would be how the percentage of mobile only users compares with that of the poverty population generally — and indeed how that groups legal issues compares with intake generally.

More generally, the next legal needs study should look very carefully at this set of issues.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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3 Responses to Shift of Poor People to Mobile Phones May Result in Undercounting in Legal Needs Studies

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  2. Linda Good says:

    I don’t find it to be particularly surprising that a greater percentage of poverty households are cell phone only. In some areas, food stamp households and/or low-income domestic violence victims and/or low-income elderly persons are eligible to receive a free cell phone with a limited calling plan. Those same households, however, are likely hard pressed to sustain the “luxury” of also having a landline. We need to move away from the incorrect assumption that cell phone ownership equates with affluence. This is a battle I fight often in my work with private attorneys who agree to accept a pro bono case, then call me to question the client’s eligibility “because she has a cell phone.” I, too, would prefer to use the word “circumstances,” instead of “personality.” It would be nice if we could get away from the old Puritanical view that poverty = moral failing.

  3. Sam Prince says:

    This article raises a particularly challenging issue when considering why access to justice suffers from such poor funding from private and government sources – how do we reach people? The attorney leadership of the legal aid industry continues to ignore the value of investing in marketing and promotion. How does one reach people who only have cell phones? By investing in promotional ideas and tools that use cell phones for promotion. But how can anyone do that when the absolute lowest funding priority of this industry is to invest in anything that involves contact with the public, let alone targeted contact with potential clients as well as potential donors or other funding sources. Brilliant dedicated marketing and fundraising staff can be only as effective as the tools their employers provide. Precious few members of the legal profession even know who their local legal aid provider is. Even fewer members of the general public are aware. Take any city phone directory, call 5 lawyers and 5 non-lawyers and ask, “where would I go in your community to get help with a civil legal problem?” I would be surprised if you got one correct response.

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