The program in question is LifeLine, a government-funded program implemented in the ’80s to give qualifying low-income residents help with paying for phone service. Originally, that meant low-cost landline rates, but in 2005, low-cost mobile service was added, and certain people were eligible for free phones from TracFone (SafeLink) by 2008. TracFone is pay-as-you-go, and LifeLine provides a $10 subsidy to those who qualify for the program, to be used to purchase minutes. It’s important to note here that the government doesn’t fund the free phones, just the subsidies for service.
United States Representative Tim Griffin (R, Arkansas) is crying foul about LifeLine. Like any responsible congressmember, Griffin has declared that he wants to cut the program completely because of careful research into the costs, benefits, and abuses of the program. What’s that? He’s just relying on the worst possible anecdotal evidence he can find? Of course he is. Griffin has heard stories about people getting ten phones through the program, and of deceased relatives being sent free phones (which the government doesn’t provide).
Whether or not the people receiving multiple phones are successfully acquiring subsidies for each of those phones is another matter. This Fox News article reports that some wireless providers have been guilty of allowing that to happen, and some people have been successfully acquiring multiple LifeLine accounts. In those cases, the FCC has levied fines and citations. Granted, it’s hard to tell how widespread the abuse is, but the FCC at least seems to have some way of enforcing the rules of the program, even if they’re just at the tip of the iceberg now.
Griffin also disagrees with the funding of the program – paid for by a fee found on most people’s wireless bill. That charge is called the Federal Universal Service Charge. Griffin cites that this charge can be as much as $3.22 per month. What he fails to cite are some pretty relevant details – specifically, that the charge is 3.32 percent of your monthly bill, and that it pays for more than just LifeLine, including support for people living in rural areas, and discounts in service for schools, libraries, and rural health care clinics.
Like any government funded program (actually, like anything, ever), many have found ways to abuse the system. The FCC has caught a few, but if they’ve caught a few, it’s probable there’s a lot more who haven’t been caught – the Fox News article references an FCC audit that found 41 percent of LifeLine subscribers were ineligible for the program. That’s a huge number, and we should be concerned. But, instead of trying to axe a program, what’s wrong with acknowledging some of the problems and doing research on the effectiveness of the program? It’s worth taking into account the fact that LifeLine helps millions who don’t take advantage of the system – their increased productivity and access to emergency services needs to be weighed against the $2.2 billion cost of the program in 2012.
Griffin has already admitted that he won’t get enough support for his desire to get rid of LifeLine completely, so he says he’ll try a compromise – removing wireless subsidies from the program, limiting it to landline subsidies. That’s comically backwards, and completely out of touch not just with where this country is, but where it’s headed. Is it absurd that dead people are getting cell phone service from the government? Of course. But, maybe try some reform and working with the FCC to stamp out abuse? Maybe put in some effort and try to make things work instead of giving up and tossing in stale counter-arguments? That might be nice. I’m sure the other 59 percent of LifeLine subscribers would be very grateful.