The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Unlike the Movie Monsters, Will the "Lifeline" Program Ever Die?

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


CAGW has repeatedly railed against the abuses of the “Lifeline” program, but much like Michael Myers (of “Halloween” fame), Jason Voorhees (of the “Friday the 13th” franchise), and George Romero’s zombies, this program simply refuses to die.

If you’re not familiar with “Lifeline,” then perhaps you know it by its more popular manifestation, the so-called “Obamaphone.”  Surely you remember the free mobile telephones for the poor that were (mistakenly) attributed as handouts from President Obama to his inner-city supporters.  Actually, the Lifeline program has been around since 1985, when the Reagan Administration began providing discounts on telephone service (landlines, mind you) for qualifying low-income individuals.  According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) website, the purpose of the program is “to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family and emergency services.  In 2005, Lifeline discounts were made available to qualifying low-income consumers on pre-paid wireless service plans in addition to traditional landline service.”

In case you were wondering how this might impact you (the taxpayer):  Lifeline is part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), an unfunded mandate on telecommunications companies.  As you might expect, that fund is, in turn, bankrolled by the USF fee which is charged to each consumer on their monthly telephone bills.

Earlier today on the “Fox and Friends” morning television show, host Gretchen Carlson illustrated how the Lifeline low-income disbursements had nearly quadrupled from $584M in 2001 to $2.19B last year.  She interviewed Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of The Detroit News, who penned a column on August 25, 2013, exposing the program’s flaws.   Perhaps the most maddening of Finley’s claims:  “…an estimated 41 percent of the phones go to ineligible recipients.”

Finley described the abuses—or just plain negligence—in even more personal detail:  “Earlier this month, my former intern, Jillian Melchior, was able to obtain three of the free phones on the streets of New York City without telling a single fib. Melchior, now a reporter for National Review, says the service reps who signed her up seemed completely uninterested in whether she was eligible for the program — she isn’t.  While signing up for one of the phones, she was taking calls on her personal iPhone.”

In Finley’s view, the program is “riddled with fraud, it’s riddled with waste, and you still can’t kill it.”  He concluded, more broadly, that “once the federal government starts spending money on an entitlement program, there’s no killing it, no matter how wasteful and fraudulent it turns out to be.”

Just like those pesky movie monsters.  Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Finley.  Or perhaps I should say, “Horror-wood.”

 

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