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Reality gives lie to the politics of free phone service for poor



Published: Sat, September 7, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

Although Republicans used “Obamaphone” as a political hammer in last year’s presidential election, the truth of the matter is that it was the GOP’s beloved president, Ronald Reagan, who launched the free phone service for the poor in 1985, and another Republican president, George W. Bush, who expanded the program in 2008.

To be sure, the number of free cellphones handed out and free minutes allocated skyrocketed during President Barack Obama’s first term, but that’s because more Americans qualified as a result of the economic recession that began in 2008.

Today, however, enrollment nationally is declining, as it is in Ohio, thanks to a concerted effort to reduce fraud and waste.

An analysis by the Dayton Daily News has found that the number of Ohioans taking advantage of the program today is 760,000, down from the 1 million-plus in 2012.

Nationwide, enrollment has dropped by more than 3 million (16.5 million to 13.3 million), according to the Daily News.

Are there problems with the program? Of course there are. But are they the result of the Obama administration’s encouraging people to break the rules and get as many free phones as they can? Of course not.

But that was the gist of the Republicans’ “Obamaphone” campaign last year. They portrayed the program as another Washington giveaway to individuals who either do not qualify or are willing to game the system — with the government’s encouragement.

The facts, however, paint an entirely different story.

Under Reagan, the program provided discounted home phone service (landlines) to the poor. The program, which was originally paid for with fees mandated by the government and tacked on to home phone bills, was designed to address the needs of the poor in terms of safety, health, employment and even family connections.

When cellphone giveaways were added during the Bush years, the mandated fees were tacked on to the cellphone bills.

Participating companies — the list keeps growing — receive up to $10 a month for every person they enroll.

While it is true that fraud and waste are an inherent part of the system, the Dayton Daily News also found that many enrollees were confused by the availability of phones from different companies, not realizing they are part of the same program.

There is a need to tighten the regulations and to strictly police the program. While individuals who qualify for the free phones and free minutes have a responsibility as citizens to follow the rules, the participating cell-phone companies also have a responsibility to ensure that individuals who qualify aren’t gaming the system.

There is a lot of money to be made, but the American people who are picking up the tab aren’t going to sit back while this worthwhile program is abused.

Mail delivery

Federal Communications Commission officials are considering a rule to require that phones be delivered through the mail after a thorough eligibility check.

“We believe that ending same-day distribution of Lifeline wireless cellphones will go a long way to eliminating the incentive for some carriers to ‘game the system,’” said Donald Mathis, president of the antipoverty group Community Action partnership.

In Ohio, the Public Utilities Commission has endorsed the rule change and also wants a more thorough enrollment process proposed by companies that want to keep in-person distribution of phones.

It is noteworthy that the program continues to attract phone companies. Three more were certified to provide Lifeline service in Ohio. According to the Dayton Daily News, 15 companies have entered the Ohio market, and three more are pending.

There’s blame to go around for the abuse and fraud, but Republican and Democratic presidents alike have recognized that the poor have a legitimate need for free phone service.


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