If the telephone were not there!Whichever group of strategists was responsible for coining the phrase “Obamacare” liked the word so much that they’re attempting to retitle LifeLine (which subsidizes phone service for low-income households) as “Obamaphone.”  “Obamaphone” is described as another nefarious socialist plan created by President Obama – in this case, to give free cell phones to low-income voters in a nefarious plot to trade cell phones for votes. There are a few things I’d like to clear up about this latest plot to destroy America:

  • The “Obamaphone” program, correctly known as LifeLine, is a federal program that provides low-income households with a ratepayer-funded subsidy to reduce the cost of phone service.  As a result, folks who couldn’t otherwise afford phone service — typically elderly, individuals with disabilities, and people of color — have access to basic telephone service. It’s existed for decades because the telephone is a necessity of modern life.
  • The LifeLine program was expanded to include wireless providers during George W. Bush’s presidency.
  • The Obamaphone GeorgeWBushphone program was created under Ronald Reagan.
  • The Obamaphone GeorgeWBushPhone Reaganphone program doesn’t provide extra money to pay for cell phones. Some wireless companies include free cell phones in their LifeLine service offerings, but they receive the same basic LifeLine subsidy as everyone else.  And for what it’s worth, those free phones are the only slightly better than this blast from the past.

Faced with those facts, critics of Obamaphone GeorgeWBushPhone Reaganphone (ah heck, I’m just calling it LifeLine from now on) change course and argue that the LifeLine program is rife with waste, fraud and abuse.  What kind of waste, fraud and abuse?  Well, LifeLine participants are only supposed to get one LifeLine subsidy per household.  Some households are getting two.  That means that they are defrauding the LifeLine program of—wait for it—ten dollars.

Now, none of us approve of fraud, but we need perspective.  Unfortunately, some of our legislators lack that perspective and are taking steps to prevent this fraud by eliminating LifeLine altogether.  If you’re like me, you’re paying less than 50 cents a month to support LifeLine services.  That’s completely reasonable amount to chip in so that veterans, out-of-work teachers, and families of 3 living on $23,000 a year can afford phone service.

Any program, public or private, is going to have some fraudulent characters trying to take advantage of the system—we’ve seen it occur in the saving and loan industry, investment banking,  insurance, and (need I even mention) the mortgage industry.  Our response has never been, “Look!  There are some bad actors there! Shut down the industry!”  Our response is to fix the problems. That’s why, for example, Greenlining supported creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Despite the existence of scoundrels, the services involved — banking, insurance, mortgage loans — are critical.

Telephone service is also critical—arguably even more critical, because it involves people’s basic ability to communicate with one another.  The solution to waste, fraud and abuse is not dismantling LifeLine, but rather creating safeguards that minimize waste, fraud and abuse while ensuring everyone who’s qualified gets LifeLine services.  (I’ll be discussing what policy safeguards have already been implemented, what new ones we might need, and how they should function, in my next post).

However, some of our leaders (Alex Pareene over at Salon.com calls them the “scandal-creation apparatus”) aren’t interested in making a great program even greater. They’re more interested in using invented facts and false terminology to attack a president they disagree with. They’re more interested in  showboating and obstructionism than actual change.  They’re more interested in sacrificing the communities of color, individuals with disabilities, and seniors for the sake of their own self-advancement.

I’d like to ask those leaders a question: Does everyone in the United States have a right to affordable, reliable telephone service?

I’m not holding my breath for an answer.