Ask yourself this question: How could it possibly help low-income people in Missouri to take away their cellphones or to deny their children the opportunity to do homework on a broadband internet connection?
About 172,000 Missouri households are enrolled today in the federal Lifeline program that provides cellphone service to eligible low-income individuals. If national statistics are any guide, 10 percent of those Missouri neighbors are veterans, about a third are disabled and more than half use their Lifeline phones to connect with doctors and other health care services.
Lifeline is now being expanded to include broadband services, with an eye to closing the “homework gap” for schoolkids. In Missouri only about one in four homes that could benefit from Lifeline are enrolled in it — there are an estimated 689,000 households in the state that qualify for the federal program — people currently getting Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income, for example.
That is why talk in Washington, D.C., about further restricting the Lifeline program should be regarded with deep concern in Missouri and elsewhere. Some in Congress want to cap, and then severely slash spending on the Lifeline program. And there are those elected officials who also want to terminate the offering of wireless services under Lifeline in as little as two years.
The timing of this congressional activity on wireless Lifeline is peculiar given that the Federal Communications Commission has undertaken multiple steps to modernize the program, including expanding it to include broadband access. While computers and internet access are a fixture in the homes of many Americans, more than one of three American households earning $25,000 or less have no computers, and about half have no internet access at home.
For the most challenged Missouri households, the wireless aspect of the Lifeline program helps connect them with access to education and job opportunities, invaluable health information and social services. A push by some on Capitol Hill to cap and severely reduce Lifeline spending could knock millions of currently enrolled Americans out of the federal program. Common sense and fairness dictate that if eligible veterans, parents, students and older Americans qualify for the program, they should be able to benefit from it.
The FCC plan envisions phasing out wireless Lifeline, it would do so over a longer period of time under a significantly more flexible budget with a higher target figure — and one that also is subject to review in the event it proves to be insufficient. The commission made a smart, thoughtful decision, allowing itself room to make adjustments in the event that the phase-out of wireless Lifeline proved to be too onerous. As it stands today, Lifeline is a small subsidy making a huge impact in people’s lives in Missouri.
If elected officials want to help low-income Missourians they’ll get out of the way of the FCC and let it keep doing its job.
Rose Eichelberger is the executive director or Ready, Aim, Advocate!, which works to educate and assist Missouri low-income families. She is based in St. Louis with operations in Kansas City and statewide. Ken McEldowney is executive director of Consumer Action, a national consumer group that works with RAA. He is based in San Francisco.