House Leaders Threaten a Program Serving Our Nation's Most Vulnerable Communities

UPDATE: House leadership caved on the Lifeline rider thanks to public pressure — and after losing a separate bid to gut the program in a vote held the evening of June 21.

The House of Representatives is up to no good this week, with its Republican leadership going after just about everything positive FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has done or plans to do. Among the items on the chopping block are the Net Neutrality rules, efforts to lower monthly cable costs, measures to protect internet users’ privacy — and the Lifeline program.

Make no mistake: All of these sneak attacks on progressive measures are terrible. But the moves to undermine Lifeline target our most vulnerable populations.

Established in 1985 to subsidize phone service for low-income individuals, Lifeline’s now also available to reduce the cost of wired and mobile broadband thanks to a March FCC vote to modernize the program. Much more needs to happen to close the digital divide, particularly since many people struggling to get by still aren’t eligible to participate in Lifeline. But this expansion is a concrete attempt to close the gaps that leave way too many Americans offline, especially low-income people of color and low-income rural residents.

Here’s the problem: Lifeline opponents — like Rep. Austin Scott (R–Georgia) — ignore how essential internet access is for anyone seeking jobs and educational opportunities. Scott has introduced the End Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act, which would cut off all Lifeline funding for wireless services and make it virtually impossible for the program to serve its neediest recipients.

And among the horrible riders snuck into an FCC funding bill is one the very same Rep. Scott proposed. This measure would put an artificial cap on the amount of money that can be used to bridge the digital divide — cutting off tens of millions of potential Lifeline recipients.

Proponents of these measures care so little about helping people access the internet that they’re essentially denying the digital divide is a problem worth addressing. But Lifeline’s name isn’t a coincidence: It’s truly a lifesaver in a time of stark economic inequity. A recent Pew Research Center report showed that the spiraling cost of home internet access is the primary barrier to getting everyone online. Lifeline is one of the key efforts to combat that problem.

The program’s recipients don’t have well-heeled lobbies advocating for them. But they have you: Urge your member of Congress to stop the attacks on Lifeline and other crucial FCC reforms.

Original photo by Flickr user Garry Knight