Future Tense

Is Amazon’s Discounted Prime Membership Really a Good Deal for Poor People?

Amazon now offers a discount to families on government assistance. 

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On Tuesday, Amazon announced that it would begin offering discounts on its prime membership to customers who receiving a certain kind of government assistance. Typically, a full Prime membership, which includes free two-day shipping and access to a wide array of entertainment content, costs $99 for a one-year subscription. Now low-income households can pay $5.99 per month. Is that really a good deal for lower-income families?

So far, it seems to be. That’s because online shopping can help bridge the transportation gap—the challenges that low-income families face just to get to a store that sells food, especially one that offers healthy options. If you don’t have a car, free two-hour delivery on everyday household items—like food, diapers, kids’ toys, and cleaning products—could be a lifesaver.

Kelly Brinkley, the chief operating officer for United Way in the National Capital Area, calls the discounted Amazon Prime “an incredible deal.” She says that many people living in rural areas or inner cities don’t have cars or easy access to stores. Ordering groceries online can make a big difference if you live in a food desert. “That is a huge barrier when it comes to child obesity and obesity in general. People … only have access to food that’s cheap, and cheap food in corner stores are unhealthy foods.”

While the United Way wants to support businesses in the community, Brinkley says, if the only option is a “very expensive small grocery store in their neighborhood, then I think [the Amazon membership] is worth it.”

Stacy Dean, the vice president of the food assistance team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is careful to note that “it won’t be the best deal for everyone.” Still, “for some people this might be a real improvement to higher quality food at better prices,” Dean said. Low-income families face challenges and expenses that middle-class shoppers might not expect, like paying a friend for gas. Figuring out how to transport everything back home is an added burden. Who wants to lug bulky boxes of diapers on a bus?

Dean also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is embarking on an online purchasing pilot program in seven states that will allow 10 online retailers, including Amazon, to enable payment via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps). It’s expected to launch in early 2018. Being able to use SNAP to shop online can help address the issue of living in a food desert, by allowing people to get food delivered.

Amazon’s low-income Prime membership is open to households receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the vast majority of whom are also eligible for and receive food stamps.

And that’s just food and household goods. Access to the streaming video will also be valuable to low-income families who are often criticized for spending money for entertainment purposes. “If you’re poor it doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong, it doesn’t mean that somehow you should be penalized,” Brinkley said. “The thought that you shouldn’t have access to entertainment or things that bring you joy” is harmful.

Amazon has offered other discounts and options for Prime in the past. If you don’t want to pay $99 for the full year, you can subscribe to Prime for $10.99 a month, though that ends up being more expensive in the long run. Students get a better deal: a free 6-month trial, after which they can get a membership 50 percent of the usual cost.