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Equity and Technology: Why Mobile Communication Matters for Low Income Families

1 in 5 Americans rely on their smartphones as their only internet connection. Here's where you fit in.

From 2015 to 2017, I worked as a case manager at a local homeless shelter in Little Rock, Arkansas. I helped families navigate different systems and institutions designed for middle-class people in stable situations. From getting a needed ID or social security card, to practicing interviews and picking an outfit, I gave my clients hands-on help.

But my clients weren’t just adults; they were kids as well. While helping moms and dads find employment and housing, we enrolled their children in after-school programs to give them a safe place to go and connect with tutors and mentors. It was critical to coordinate with parents, family members, and friends concerning what the student was doing, and where they would go after the program.

For me, the more practical way to get in touch with families about their children actually wasn’t through a text or phone call: it was through a mobile app. While free phones from a governmental program are available, most residents at the shelter purchased and used smartphones to communicate to the outside world. They used them to access the internet, post on their social media accounts, search for jobs, and deposit money into their bank accounts. So many places have free internet, and with numerous free texting applications available, we could communicate without a phone “being on” for free.

With a mobile app, it wouldn’t matter if our clients’ numbers had changed or if their phones were “turned off”; we could always contact them through a mobile app on their smartphones.

It turns out, what I was witnessing is a national trend. Low income families are far more likely than others to rely on a smartphone as their only internet connection.

Because of this, it’s important for school leaders to communicate with families in a way that fits them best. In this article, we’ll cover:

The Importance of Smartphones for Lower-Income Americans

Often we think of smartphones as a luxury only the upper and middle class can afford, but that simply isn’t the case. It may seem surprising, but many lower income families are switching to a mobile plan and abandoning broadband service to access the internet at home.

From 2013 to 2021, reliance on smartphones rather than broadbands increased from 12% to 27% for people with average incomes less than $30,000. In fact, 15% of all U.S. adults are considered 'smartphone dependent' according to a 2023 Pew Research study. With such a variety of “pay as you go” plans and devices available to the public, purchasing a smartphone has become much easier—and more affordable—than it used to be. While wealthier Americans can diversify their internet usage across different devices (i.e tablets, laptops, mobile phones, smart devices), smartphones have become the cheapest way for lower-income Americans to talk to their families, look for jobs, and access their bank accounts on the go.

Graph showing share of lower income Americans who rely on smart phones to go online has increased to 27% from half that in 2013.

Since they’re more accessible, smartphones allow lower-income Americans to ditch the usual expenses that arise from buying a home computer, like having to purchase a router, modem, and often overly expensive broadband service. According to a 2017 study done by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, more households had a mobile data plan than wired broadband service.

What Does This Mean for School Leaders?

Over the past several years, it’s typically been harder for administration, teachers, and other faculty members to contact lower-income parents outside of school hours. Contact information like home addresses, emails, and phone numbers can change month-to-month, causing parents to miss important updates from their child’s school or district.

Since lower-income families have become more mobile, school leaders need to communicate through a school mobile app.

With a school mobile app, school leaders don’t need addresses or phone numbers to interact with community members. A mobile app provides the same kind of direct communication as a text or call alert, but removes the problem of changing a user's contact information.

By creating a mobile app for your school district, you’re creating a consistent communication channel where lower-income parents can access your school’s content. Even if you already have a responsive website, you can provide all the same information in a school mobile app, as well as send push notifications to every member in your community.

It might not be the traditional way of communicating, but by adopting a school mobile app, you’re creating a more reliable, consistent way of informing lower-income families about the important updates happening within your schools.

Developing a Mobile Strategy to Reach Lower-Income Students and Families

So let’s say you purchase a school mobile app that can be downloaded from parents' smartphones. How will your school administration let them know about it? Lower-income families may be in situations that call for frequent moving and changing of their contact information. Just because you buy an app doesn’t mean your lower-income families will use it—or even know it exists.

That’s why it’s important to develop a mobile strategy. A mobile strategy is simply a well thought-out plan that prioritizes developing (and promoting) your mobile presence over your desktop website.

Just remember: You have to customize your mobile experience for everyone, not just middle and upper class parents within your school community.

As you think about how lower-income families will access your school mobile app, it’s important to prioritize:

  • Getting the word out about your app to lower-income families
  • Posting important information on your app that could get lost in a student’s backpack
  • Engaging with lower-income families so their voices are heard

If you prioritize these key tasks, you’ll increase the likelihood that lower-income families will be more informed and engaged within your school community, resulting in a better educational experience for their children.

For more information on developing a mobile strategy, check out this article here.