Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing posing the question whether the Lifeline program is “money well spent?” The Lifeline Fund, which provides discounts on telephone phone service to low-income households, is designed to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable communications services. In light of the increasing importance of communication services for the livelihood of all Americans, civil rights activists voiced support for the continuation of this program as well as expansion of it to include access to broadband networks for Lifeline-eligible consumers.
Lifeline is an important tool for the nation’s most vulnerable populations. As Jessica J. Gonzalez, vice president of Policy & Legal Affairs, National Hispanic Media Coalition testified, “One major provider told [the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)] that its average Lifeline customer is a middle-aged grandmother, raising her grandchildren on only $12,000 per year. … For families living at this level of poverty, every single dollar counts in the struggle to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter.”
Yet during the hearing, several congressmen critiqued the way the FCC has been using its money for this program, saying that “it’s not clear the money is even really helping low-income families.” Currently, the Lifeline program is available to individuals who are at, or below, 135 percent of the federal poverty guideline. This service is essential for all people who need to reach emergency services, earn a living, improve their education, receive health care, or engage in civic society. Telephones are critical for managing many aspects of daily life, such as receiving social services as an elderly person or connecting with one’s community as a limited English proficient resident.
The Lifeline program was created in 1985 during the Reagan administration to promote the promise of “universal service” contained in the Communications Act in 1934. The program was then expanded to provide prepaid wireless services during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The program currently provides phone service to more than 16 million people.
Earlier in the week, Reps. Doris Matsui, D., Calif., Henry Waxman D., Calif. and Anna Eshoo D.,Calif., introduced the Broadband Adoption Act of 2013, which would expand the Lifetime program to include affordable broadband service. “High-speed internet is an essential service for Americans seeking to move out of poverty and thrive in the modern economy. Internet access is a key for children to achieve in schools and for adults attending school online or applying for any kind of job,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The civil rights community supports the Lifeline program and the contributions it makes to contribute to the nation’s well-being and those most in need.