Cellphones For The Poor?

by John Hawkins | June 15, 2009 11:05 am

If you want to get an idea of why this country is dead broke and getting deeper into the hole each day, the mentality behind this program[1] gives you a clue,

John Cobb, 59, a former commercial fisherman who is disabled with cirrhosis of the liver and emphysema, lives in a studio apartment in Greensboro, N.C., on a fixed monthly income of $674. He has been hoping to receive more government assistance, and in February, he did. It came in the form of a free cellphone and free service.

Mr. Cobb became one of a small but rapidly growing number of low-income Americans benefiting from a new wrinkle to a decades-old federal law that provided them with subsidized landline telephone service.

In a twist, wireless carriers are receiving subsidies to provide people like Mr. Cobb with a phone and typically 68 minutes of talk time each month. It is a form of wireless welfare that puts a societal stamp on the central role played by the mobile device.

…The free phone is not, as it is for some others in the program, their sole form of telecommunications. Out of the roughly $1,600 they make each month after taxes, they pay $159 for a landline telephone, high-speed Internet and cable television. But the cellphone, Mr. Simmons says, gives him the flexibility to tell his wife or daughter his comings and goings or to stay in touch when he is at the doctor.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, Lifeline service was started in 1984 to ensure that everyone had telephone service for emergencies. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened competition to new wireline and wireless providers.

More recently, companies, particularly Tracfone, have started pursuing the wireless opportunity. Still, most of the $800 million in subsidies last year went for landline service even as more Americans cut the cord in favor of exclusively using a mobile phone.

Yes, you read that right: we’re paying higher taxes to provide people with free mobile phones. Moreover, we have a guy who already had a phone, cable, and highspeed internet, who’s eligible for it. Meanwhile, the US debt is now at a million dollars per family[2].

You may say, “Come on, John, this is a small program. It’s not responsible for the size of the deficit.” But, that’s just it: we don’t have the money to give people cell phones. We don’t have the money for a stimulus. We don’t have the money to pay everyone the benefits they’ve been promised for Social Security and Medicare.

Here’s what it comes down to: we’re completely broke, but because we’re still acting as if we’re rich, we can’t wrap our minds around it. We’re like a poor person, you know, a real poor person who’s actually so impoverished he can’t afford DSL or HBO, living in the presidential suite at a fancy hotel and paying for it on credit. The bed is soft, the room service food is delicious, the view is wonderful, the maid keeps the place spotless — but what happens when his credit card is finally declined and he has to start paying the bill?

Lots of people, including some Republicans over the last few years, have downplayed our debt. Oh, it’s not that big in relation to GNP. It’s not enough to get us into real trouble — yet, we’re running the biggest deficit since WW2, Obama wants to massively increase our spending for socialized medicine and global warming, and there seems to be no political will to cut anything other than our military and intelligence programs.

The longer it takes for us to get serious about getting our spending under control, the bigger the mountain of debt we’re going to have to climb is going to be. We’ll know that Congress has put on its climbing shoes when it starts dumping asinine programs like cellphones for the poor.

  1. mentality behind this program: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/15/technology/15cell.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
  2. US debt is now at a million dollars per family: http://www.nypost.com/seven/06142009/business/us_debt_is_at_1m_per_family_174238.htm

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