Lifeline is a hand up, not a handout

Imagine if you had no phone number to list on your résumé. Imagine what you would do in an emergency with no way to call for help. That’s why President Bush expanded Lifeline to cover wireless service in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Whether you’re facing a devastating hurricane or running 15 minutes late to pick up your child from school, a phone call is more than a transaction — it’s security, upward mobility, and peace of mind. 

Lifeline is a hand up, not a hand out. People need affordable services to connect and contribute to the outside world. According to statistics from the telephone carriers, nearly 80 percent of subscribers to Lifeline have a household income of less than $15,000 per year.  Subscribers include struggling families, people with disabilities, veterans, rural residents, Native Americans, seniors and individuals from communities of color. People from every part of the country use Lifeline to stay in touch with their children, call 911, take care of their medical needs, and apply for jobs. Instead of foregoing essentials like food and health care in order to participate in our society and economy, deserving Lifeline subscribers can engage fully as citizens.

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This week, more than 80 organizations representing the full diversity of our nation have come together to defend the program in Congress, stating that “our nation’s communications policy is based on the fundamental principle of universal service for good reason: people need affordable communications services to connect to the outside world for job opportunities, medical services, educational advancement, and civic participation. …Thanks to Lifeline, some members of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations are able to maintain telephone service when their incomes would not otherwise cover this necessity.”

In an era of federal belt-tightening, the FCC is doing its part to institute cost controls and make sure that Lifeline is fiscally responsible. Last year, the agency initiated important reforms that have already resulted in $200 million in savings and are on track to net $2 billion by the end of 2014. These reforms include clear mandates for telephone carriers providing the service, uniform procedures to confirm subscriber eligibility, and automated mechanisms to avoid duplications.

Most importantly, the Lifeline program has been extremely effective at ensuring access to phone service for those who need it most.

Now is the time to protect, modernize, and strengthen Lifeline. This evolution could play an invaluable role in ending the digital divide, further increasing Lifeline subscribers’ chances of rising above the hard times that made them eligible. We are well into the 21st century, and this key program could help reduce the monthly cost of high-speed Internet service and open new doors for advancement in education and employment for millions of Americans.

This week is National Lifeline Awareness Week. Take a moment to reflect on your own lifeline, and where you would be without a landline, a cell phone, or Internet access. 

Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Aaron is president and CEO of Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund.

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