The power of telephones, and in particular cellphones, is in the fact that they offer everyone who carries one a lifeline to the rest of humanity. In 2011 ABC News reported that, “240 million calls are made to 911 in the United States each year. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 70 percent of them are wireless calls.” I know that I vividly remember being 17 years old and receiving one of the family’s first Nokia cellphones. I also remember the reason that my parents gave in and bought the family an expensive cell phone package.
It was the result of a simple event, the family dryer broke. My parents left my younger sister and I home alone but being in our late teens, this was normal for us. That afternoon I started to feel a pain in my stomach. Within an hour I was in bed, crying, burning with fever, and scaring my sister to death. She had no idea what to do and without a cell phone, there was no way to reach our parents. I am certain that she was on the verge of calling an ambulance when my parents returned after a long day shopping. My mom took me to the hospital immediately and I was soon in emergency lifesaving surgery after my mother was sternly lectured for not bringing me in sooner.
The fact is that my parents weren’t to blame. Cellphones were not common then, and I was brought to the doctor as quickly as my parents could rush me there. That fact didn’t change my mother’s commitment to ensuring that such a thing never happened in our family again. In the many years since that day, she has never let that cell phone plan lapse. She still pays for my adult sister and I to have them so that no matter what we can always call for help. In the years since my mother bought that phone plan there have been many times that I have used the phones in emergencies. One time I called 911 after a car accident, another I called for a ride to the hospital when I was in labor.
Last week on Fox’s Newsroom, Arkansas Congressman Tim Griffin tried to convince us that poor people don’t deserve the peace of mind offered by a telephone when he lied about a crucial government program, known as Lifeline. Griffin said that “through the program, some people are getting “two and three, 10 and 20 and 30 cell phones and you’re paying for it!” He went on to say that if you look at your phone bill, you will see a line that reads Universal Service Fee, which is the tax that pays for this program. “[People] aren’t just getting cell phones, they are getting iPhones, they’re getting blackberries, they’re getting stuff that you and I are paying a lot [for] every month.”
Here is the video:
When I first came across this story, it was under the disdainful commentary of a Facebook friend who posted this link with the phrase, “Get rid of it…one more luxury keeping my brother-in-law and sister-in-law from getting a job!” Seeing this angered me, and saddened me both. I’m getting pretty disgusted with lying GOP Congressmen stirring up a false divide in our nation, and I’m tired of Fox giving them a platform to do it with. I have known the young woman who said this since we were 10 years old. I feel comfortable vouching for her heart and am not surprised that she has grown to become a loving mother of three, devoted wife, and skilled grief counselor. Yet, in this comment, and several that followed, I was surprised. I was shocked to see how republican politics can warp a decent person into thinking and saying spiteful things. I worry that this also leads to spiteful votes, spiteful politics, and a spiteful nation.
All too often, our society dismisses the needs of individuals on this kind of spiteful bias. We define some group of people as unworthy moochers who haven’t earned their fair share without ever asking ourselves if this is true or not.
Contrary to my friend’s apparent belief that Lifeline will prevent her in-laws from gainful employment, my experience trying to get a job without a call back number says that she is wrong. In fact, according to most homeless and poverty advocacy groups it is well known that not having a phone number or address for a resume or job application can be severely prohibitive in getting employment. It is clear that somewhere, somebody is missing something.
In an effort to better understand Lifeline, I took the opportunity to speak with Tom Wilson, an expert telecommunications economist. Over the course of a 25 year career Mr. Wilson has worked with various government and private interest groups on state, national and international levels to understand the influence of telephone access on society–specifically the rural poor. When I asked him about his reaction to Fox’s report on Lifeline, Mr. Wilson was happy to start by explaining that, “The purpose of Lifeline assistance is to lift people up. You give people a chance to care for themselves- that’s good for the economy.” He went on to tell me that Lifeline began as a program that helped poor people get subsidized land-line telephone service to their homes if they qualified for government programs like welfare or food-stamps. Over the years the program evolved to allow for government assistance to be offered to monthly cell phone bills as well.
The current Lifeline program does not offer free land-line phone or cell phone service to anyone. It does provide a $9.25 per month discount on phone services if you meet poverty restrictions (plus up to a $3.50 per month discount in some states Telephone Assistance Programs that partially match the federal discount). This discount can be applied to a qualified cellphone or a land-line phone bill. Only one person per household is eligible for this discount. Additionally, if you live in an extremely poor, high cost rural, Tribal area and you meet poverty guidelines, then you may also qualify for Link Up which provides a discount (up to a maximum of $100) for commencing service at a subscriber’s principal place of residence.
Simply put, the laws that regulate the current Lifeline program show that the Congressman’s statements last week were flat out wrong. While Lifeline will pay up to $9.25 per month toward a cell or land-line phone bill for a poor family, it will not pay for a new phone or cell phone, or any connection fees. A qualifying person may use special Link Up funds to pay connection fees, but only on phones in Tribal areas with monthly bills subsidized by the Lifeline program and only one person per family may use this program and they only qualify for help with one phone.
Congressman Griffin makes it sound like the poor leaches of society are legally taking advantage of hardworking tax payers in some kind of sneaky class warfare attack. When I asked Mr. Wilson what he thought the Congressman was talking about in the Fox clip, he provided valuable insight. He explained that up until a reform of the programs recently went into effect it was possible that multiple phones were being issued to single social security numbers in the guise of being under the Lifeline and Link Up programs. I was dismayed. I asked him if poor people were signing up for multiple phones on the government’s bill and then selling them. His response surprised me, “Oh, no, it wasn’t impoverished people abusing this system – it was certain cell phone companies.”
Mr. Wilson went on to describe how discount and disposable cell phone companies were taking advantage of the fact that the states were not paying much attention to how Lifeline funds were being distributed. Websites and other businesses advertised “free government cell phones” while charging the government for multiple cell phones attributed to social security numbers of people who may or may not be alive, let alone qualify for the Lifeline program. In many cases, no cell phones were ever actually distributed. Recently, the Security and Exchange Commission sued the owner of Cintex Wireless, Paul V. Greene over millions of dollars in alleged abuse of the program.
In January 2012 the FCC created a National Lifeline Accountability Database to prevent multiple carriers from receiving support for the same subscriber as well as other systems of fraud prevention. They legally went into effect on May 1st, two days before Congressman Griffin spoke about this issue on Fox. It seems to me that the Congressman is deliberately deceiving us. In the misrepresentation of this issue he and his friends at Fox have chosen to divide us. They have painted this image of poor people mooching profit off of the government to the detriment of the working class that simply isn’t true. As a result Mr. Griffin has successfully turned one of my sweetest childhood friends into a spiteful person who’d seemingly begrudge her own sister or brother the ability to call 911.
When you pair this atrocity with the opportunity cost of this moment, it’s really deplorable what Tim Griffin did last week when he stepped on TV and started telling lies. Think about what better use those few moments could have held. What if the Congressman had chosen the educated and righteous side of this issue? He could easily have spoken up for the most destitute among us and their right to call for help, to be connected to others, to have a lifeline. Instead of a message of inclusiveness, he chose a false message of divisiveness.
Let’s not be distracted and divided by lies. The fact is that Lifeline offers a poor person a chance to put a contact number on a job app, receive a call from an employer about a job, call 911, reach their government services, access education and health care, and communicate with their community, church,counseling, and therapy. Nobody is getting rich off of this legally. Let’s not be spiteful to the poor among us that we know and love. Let us be ever diligent in watching for lying politicians, and manipulative corporations. It is my experience, that with careful investigation, the trail of guilt most often, as in this case, leads to them.