Under President Trump, Millions of Poor Lose Access to Cell Phones

The Federal Communications Commission began subsidizing home phone lines in 1985 to provide “the opportunities and security that phone service brings” to people who cannot afford it, according to the FCC’s website. The Lifeline program started including cellphone plans in 2005. Currently, subscribers receive $9.25 per month to put toward a discounted cellphone plan designed by provider companies. For some, that means a cap of 250 voice minutes and 2 GB of mobile data. Lifeline enrollment peaked at 17.6 million subscribers in 2012 when the program had a budget of $2.1 billion, nearly twice its present size. Over the past two years, the FCC has been introducing a computer system that, by automatically confirming eligibility for Lifeline subscribers and taking the review process out of the hands of providers, was supposed to further prevent fraud. A year after the 2018 rollout, however, the screening system isn’t working as planned. The computer system, called the National Eligibility Verifier, lacks access to key federal and state databases needed to check eligibility. Enrollment is down in several states where the verifier is fully launched. In MS and WY, for example, it has dropped by more than one third since the rollout began. In an emailed statement, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said the steep drop in subscribers shows the crackdown is working. “Given the high rate of improper payments in the Lifeline program,” Wigfield wrote, “it makes sense that subscribership in the program is decreasing as more anti-fraud efforts take effect.” But Lifeline supporters say the Trump FCC’s subscriber purge is less about rooting out malfeasance than about ending the program.

Another series of reforms is slated for Dec that providers and advocates say would make it nearly impossible for many cellphone companies to stay in the program. The companies say the changes — increasing the amount of mobile data that must be offered and phasing out support for cellphone call minutes — will make it too costly for providers with the subsidy of less than $10 a month. “In my mind, it’s very clear that what they are trying to do is kill the program,” said Crystal Rhoades, a Democratic member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission. “This is a deliberate and disgusting assault on people who live in poverty.” Consumer advocates see the changes in Lifeline as part of a broader campaign to cut back on resources for poor people. The Trump administration has already targeted other federal assistance programs such as Medicaid and food stamps for budget cuts and reforms that would limit access. “We’ve unfortunately seen the Trump FCC engage in very unhelpful and unconstructive rhetoric and behavior that has really destabilized the program,” said Cheryl Leanza, a policy advisor for the United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry, which works to make media and technology more accessible. Enrollment nationwide has dropped by 2.3 million people — about 21 percent — since 2017.

Under Trump, Millions of Poor Lose Access to Cellphones