Conservative Pundits Continue Push on Lifeline Program

With Drudge making old news all over again, questions have popped up about a postive Reagan era program that conservatives are using as a scare tactic in this election.

Let's talk a little about "ObamaPhone". The program is actually called Lifeline and was originated by Ronald Reagan and the current program was something created by George W. Bush. The Lifeline phone program, which provides discounts on telephone service to low-income residents, was started in 1984 and expanded under President Clinton. In 2008, under President Bush, TracFone, a wireless carrier, began offering free prepaid cell phone options in some states. All of this occurred prior to President Obama’s inauguration, as he was sworn in on January 20, 2009.

The free prepaid cell phone option is the biggest factor fueling the recent growth of the Lifeline program. As the Dayton Daily News article referred to explains, “Growth in the program is fed by the 2008 decision to extend it to prepaid cellphone companies.” Here, also, is the independent Government Accountability Office:

According to USAC and FCC officials and other stakeholders, such as the Florida Public Service Commission, increases in Lifeline in 2009 were primarily due to the addition of free, prepaid wireless cell service by TracFone. Instead of discounting a monthly telephone bill for Lifeline service, TracFone’s Lifeline service (SafeLink Wireless) converts the total amount of the USF subsidy into an allotment of free minutes each month.

After TracFone, a number of other carriers began offering free wireless service under the Lifeline program. According to the Dayton Daily News, in Ohio the number of companies that do so more than doubled in the last year, from four in 2011 to nine as of August 2012. It’s the companies making the decision to offer the service, however, not the Obama administration. Again, from the Dayton Daily News:

“It’s certainly growing, and it’s growing because there are more companies entering the program and offering more services to people,” said USAC Spokesman Eric Iversen.

A secondary reason for the program’s growth is the recession, which has driven many people on the margins of financial stability into deeper poverty, prompting them to turn to assistance programs to keep afloat. Eligibility for the Lifeline program is tied to either how much you make or participation in other aid programs. Generally, in order to qualify, you must either make under 135 percent of the poverty line – that is, you must make less than $31,118 if you’re in a family of four – or be enrolled in a program like Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). So, as the recession has driven down family incomes and participation in aid programs has increased, additional numbers of people have become eligible for the Lifeline program. Here’s what the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says about food stamps, for example:

A primary driver of the recent rapid caseload growth is the increase in the number of eligible households because of the recession.  Poverty has increased substantially, from 12.5 percent in 2007 to 15.1 percent in 2010, resulting in more households qualifying for the program.  And, the deep and prolonged nature of the recession has led to record levels of long-term unemployment, extending the length of time that unemployed individuals have needed SNAP.  

Of course, greater participation and the availability of free cell phones opens up greater risks of waste, fraud, and abuse, and what the FCC has done during the Obama administration is work toward implementing reforms to the program. This includes requiring phone companies to purge inactive lines and cross-checking applicants against a list of people already enrolled to make sure that no one is getting more than one phone, and. The FCC started doing this in 2011, and saved $33 million by ending 270,000 duplicate subscriptions.

Finally, Obama did not change the name of this program to “Obama Phone.” It is still referred to as “Lifeline.”  There is no evidence that is an administration project. It’s a very basic WordPress webpage, which are free and extremely simple to create. The “application” form on the webpage is not a functional application system; it is a comment box that almost certainly does not forward your information to the relevant bureaucrat, especially since applications are handled on a state-by-state basis.

Yesterday, when conservative blogger (Drudge) decided to rehash a video from 2007, it became clear that positive, consensus social programs are in the crosshairs of conservative pundits. And we continue to believe that government has a role in making sure every person has the freedom and opportunity to succeed. If programs work, they should be encourage and not inhibitited. When public, private partnerships succeed in accomplishing something to improve our communities, then no person should try and win a political point within the fringes of their party at the detriment of others. These truths should be self evident. Sadly, they are not.


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