Why do people in poverty have satellite dishes?

Satellite dishes grow off the sides of North Philadelphia rowhouses like mushrooms.

The city once tried to restrict them for being unsightly, without success.

But their ubiquity in low-income neighborhoods makes some observers wonder: If people enjoy such amenities as satellite and cable service, how poor can they be?

Conservatives such as highly influential Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation in Washington ask that question often enough that it’s regularly repeated on right-leaning TV and radio.

They declare that low-income Americans are doing relatively well because they have air conditioners, cellphones, big-screen TVs, and other items that the poor in sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere in the Third World live without.

“A poor child in America is far more likely to have a widescreen plasma television, cable or satellite TV, a computer and an Xbox in his home than he is to be hungry,” Rector and Rachel Sheffield wrote. They reported that about two-thirds of poor families have cable or satellite TV.

READ MORE: Hunger in Philly: ‘It’s a pain in my belly’

Mark Rank labeled that theory “pseudo-social science — a joke.” You can watch The Real Housewives of New York, the professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis said, and still be victimized by a lack of food, poor education, low wages, and crumbling houses.

What the satellite dishes of North Philadelphia say to you, then, depends on how you view those who are poor.

“People tend to jump to conclusions when they see satellite dishes in the inner city,” said Luke Shaefer, a social-work professor at the University of Michigan. “But we need to look more deeply.”

Angela Sutton, a temporary state worker who used to live in North Philadelphia, agreed.

“It’s a shame people are so judgy about satellite dishes,” said Sutton, 42, a single mother of two who had cable service once but dropped it after concluding it was “highway robbery.” She said she tries to “keep it small now” in her Northeast Philadelphia home, watching TV online.

The cheapest available monthly packages for Dish Satellite TV and DirecTV satellite programming (no premium channels or high-definition) are $59.99 for 190 channels, and $35 for 150, respectively, according to Reviews.org, a tech consumer guide. For Comcast Xfinity cable, it’s $49.99 for 140 channels. Equipment installation costs for Comcast cable can be free with some promotions, or range as high as $80. Satellite installation also can be free, with fees often dependent on a customer’s credit.

Many say having satellite service or cable — and such services as cellphones and computers — is a necessity, as essential to 21st-century life as electricity.

“It’s extraordinarily irresponsible for people with privilege to argue that a Philadelphia family be denied basic communications and entertainment because they’re poor,” said Hannah Sassaman, policy director at Media Mobilizing Project, a West Philadelphia communications company that helps the disadvantaged. “We live in a world that’s digital.”

Besides, said Kate Goodman, a community organizer for the Free Library of Philadelphia in Kensington, just because a satellite dish hangs from a house, “it doesn’t mean it’s hooked up.”

It likely was once, she said, but the family may have lost the ability to pay for their service.

One largely misunderstood aspect of poverty is that people are constantly moving in and out of it. The Financial Diaries Study by New York University demonstrated that volatility: In a month’s time, a family’s income could spike, then dip, without warning. So, if dish service makes sense in May, it can become out of the question by June.

Because rents are high and salaries aren’t, many families living in poverty are doubling and tripling up in apartments. There’s often enough money scraped together to pay for a satellite TV contract, said Karen Pushaw, a staff member of St. Francis Inn Soup Kitchen in Kensington.

“Even in a poor neighborhood, there are plenty of people working,” she said.

Children are a primary reason for getting satellite or cable service in a low-income area.

“It’s like a babysitter for people who can’t afford one,” said Asteria Vives, director of Home Quarters & Friends, a nonprofit that helps families in the North Philadelphia area. “It entertains them and keeps them away from the streets.”

People worry about kids being murdered in schools in Florida and Texas, but the danger in such places as North Philadelphia is constant, said Laura Peralta-Schulte, a senior advocate for Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit founded by nuns working for social justice.

“If you’re a parent concerned about kids playing outside, satellite TV is a viable alternative for keeping your child from being shot,” Peralta-Schulte said.

Philippe Bourgois, a former University of Pennsylvania anthropologist who lived in Kensington to study residents for a book, offered a challenge to anyone with a “bad-faith critique” of the poor who spend money on television:

“Go rent a house up there,” he said. “I guarantee you’ll lock your door and stay terrified inside all day, watching TV.”

Also, parents don’t want their children to feel any more deprived than they already are.

“Your kids see other kids watching Nick Jr., and they feel outcast and isolated when they can’t watch in your house,” said Sutton, the single mother of two. “So you sacrifice to get a dish. Some of us worked two or three jobs to keep up with the Joneses and Kardashians for our kids.”

It’s not just low-income children who benefit from satellite and cable television. “There’s the population of elderly poor,” said Dot Newton, executive director of Deliverance Community Development Corp. in North Philadelphia. “What would they have sitting home all day if they didn’t have TV?”

And, said Luke Shaefer, don’t forget people returning from their neighborhoods from prison, who watch TV to lie low.

Asteria Vives knows a few people like that. “Many men who were jailed prefer cable to going out with women,” she said. “These guys can’t afford to socialize, and TV keeps them out of trouble.”

Obviously, not everyone can afford paying for television service and shouldn’t get themselves into financial difficulty trying, Vives said.

Debra Colbert, 45, of North Philadelphia, agreed. A stay-at-home mother of five married to a truck driver, she said that “cable is a creature comfort we can’t afford right now. It’s very irresponsible to try to get cable if your bills are not paid on time.”

True enough. But bad financial decisions aren’t limited to the poor, Shaefer said.

“We all spend in ways we shouldn’t.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow @BrokeInPhilly