LETTER: Congress targets wrong fiscal problemsRight-wing media and conservative politicians, such as Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., call the longstanding Lifeline program wasteful and target it for elimination.
Right-wing media and conservative politicians, such as Rush Limbaugh and Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., call the longstanding Lifeline program wasteful and target it for elimination.
News editor Jamilah King, Colorlines.com, reports the Lifeline program began under President Reagan and the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1985. The goal: make basic telephone service — considered a necessity, not a luxury — available to the vast majority of U.S. residents. Local phone companies received a federal subsidy to provide service at a discount to low-income applicants.
In 1996, Congress revised the Telecommunications Act to define universal service to allow evolution from landlines to cell phones, and require companies offering service across state lines to contribute a portion of their profits to a newly established Universal Service Fund, creating a federal subsidy that in effect pays for itself. Telecom companies paying a portion of their profits into the fund and agreeing to extend service to low-income and rural households have money returned to them in the form of a federal contribution.
The government encourages Lifeline providers to aggressively market their service. TracFone/SafeLink Wireless has made big profits by doing so. In 2009, it received over $189 million from federal subsidies to serve low-income subscribers. Due in large part to TracFone’s efforts, enrollment in the program grew from 7.1 million in 2008 to 8.6 million in 2009.
TracFones offer basic service, not internet, with a limited number of minutes per month. Last year, in response to some legitimate complaints of subscribers not verifying eligibility, the FCC implemented reform to curb fraud. Applicants must now provide paperwork and re-apply for the program every year, making it more difficult for the homeless, elderly and rural folks — those most in need — to qualify.
Early in Obama’s first term, conservatives started calling the program “phone stamps” and calling Lifeline prepaid cellular units “Obama phones,” pointing to it as some sort of Obama-led socialist expansion.
Today, 13.5 million households rely on Lifeline subsidized phones to help them find housing and work, and to access emergency and medical services.
The money spent on Lifeline is small compared to the trillions the government spent and still spends subsidizing big banks since 2008 when their greed nearly brought the world economy to ruin, the billions that big corporations avoid paying in taxes by siphoning profits to foreign subsidiaries, or the billions of extra dollars spent on Medicare drugs because Congress did not allow the government in the Part D Drug Law to negotiate discounts from drug companies.
Contact your representatives in Congress and ask them to stop picking on the poor and focus on solving these serious, financially devastating problems .