Report: Smartphone ownership for low-income Americans

Report on smartphones and wic

“Do low-income Americans have smartphones?”

This question comes up every time we talk about QuickWIC, the mobile app for WIC. For Americans who struggle to afford basic items, is it possible that smartphone ownership is common?

We know the answer from WIC clinics — Yes, we see WIC mothers on smartphones all the time. But we wanted to prove it. So we went to the data and found four charts that conclusively show the trend. To answer the question once and for all: Yes, low-income Americans own and use smartphones.


Before proceeding, let’s touch on “why.” Why is smartphone ownership so common for low-income Americans?

First, the smartphone is the cheapest means of connecting to the Internet. For this population, the phone is the primary Internet-enabled device (unlike households with laptops, who use phones as a second screen). Second, for the WIC population in particular, note that half of new US mothers are under age 25 [pdf]. In this generation, texting and social media are essential tools for staying connected with peers. Raising a child takes a village and the smartphone helps maintain that community.

Now, onto the data.

Smartphone ownership by age and economic status

Here is the most recent data we have. It’s from Pew Research’s Internet & American Life Project:

  Smartphone ownership in 2013 (data from Pew Research's Internet and American Life Project)

In the chart, we see an average ownership of 39% for all low-income Americans. But ownership varies greatly by age. When we consider the under-30 age group, smartphone ownership shoots up to 77%. In this bracket, low-income Americans are only 5 percentage points behind their peers. The gap here is small.

Let’s get more detail. We start by examining the lowest earners in America.

Smartphone Ownership by Economic Status

The previous chart has no detail about Americans who make less than $30,000. This is important since half of all WIC mothers make under $15,000 annually. In the lowest income bracket, is the smartphone still popular?

To answer this question, we found a report from the Nielsen Media Group. It’s from 2012 (which means it’s already dated!), but it’s relevant since it tracks the under-$15,000 bracket as a separate group. Let’s compare the trends between the under-$15,000 and the $15,000-$30,000 income segments:

Smartphone ownership in 2012 (data from Nielsen)

Our interest is in the population aged 18-34. We combine the data across these groups to see that a cumulative 52.5% of people earning less than $30,000 own a smartphone. When we do the same for people earning less than $15,000, we get 49.5% ownership. This is encouraging news, since it shows that the lowest earners in American only lag their peers by 3 percentage points.

We want to extrapolate this result to the 2013 Pew Research data. In the interval between the two surveys, smartphone ownership for the under-$30,000 bracket grew from 52.6% to 77%. Assuming proportionate gains, the under-$15,000 bracket should stretch from 49.5% ownership to 72.6%. These numbers validate that smartphones are mainstream even in the poorest audiences. The numbers support that 3 in 4 WIC mothers own a smartphone.

 Next, let’s examine how race and ethnicity effect smartphone ownership.

Smartphone Ownership by Race/Ethnicity

The racial/ethnic distribution of WIC differs from the US national average. In WIC, there is a higher representation of Hispanic/Latino and Black mothers. Let’s compare:

 Demographics of the US vs WIC (data from the US Census Bureau and WIC)

How does this affect smartphone ownership? Below, we see that smartphone adoption also varies between racial/ethnic groups:

 Smartphone ownership by race-ethnicity (data by Nielsen)

Observe that Hispanic/Latino, Black, and Asian populations all lead the national average in smartphone ownership. This is a contributing factor to smartphone ownership in WIC. By having a higher representation of these groups in the WIC program, we expect that smartphone ownership for WIC mothers will exceed the national average.


Smartphones are no longer a luxury item. Our research shows this device is ubiquitous across all American income brackets. This fact is particularly true for the younger generation, where the gap between the rich and the poor is virtually non-existent. Smart phones are everywhere.

If for some reason, you’re still unconvinced, consider how fast adoption is expanding. While ownership hasn’t reach 100%, the number of smartphone owners grew 19% in the last two years. Imagine then, what does 2015 have in store?


*Note—for this report, we evaluated gender differences in smartphone ownership. We could not find a statistically significant result.

One Comment

  1. “OH! WHY ‘DIS GOTSTABE WIC? A BLACK WOMAN CAN’T AFFORD PRODUCE WITHOUT WIC?? *lol* Wait…that would have been expected. *sigh*…produce is too dayum high thugoh! *lol*

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