Latino Group Defends $2.2 Billion Program That Provides Phone Discounts To Low Income

A federal program that provides a discount on phone service to low income Americans is in danger of being cut or eliminated. The nation's largest and oldest Hispanic organization warned that any drastic restrictions to the program would hurt around 7 million Hispanics.


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Since 1986, the Lifeline program has provided a discount on phone service for qualifying low-income consumers. It was established to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family and emergency service. It was updated in 2008 to include wireless service.

Brent Wilkes is executive director of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens. He says based on estimates of current Hispanic enrollment, cuts or the outright elimination of the Lifeline program would have a huge impact.

“Because of the high unemployment within the Hispanic community, it is more vital than ever to ensure that Hispanics have the means to seek and retain employment. Having a wireless phone can make the difference between someone receiving the call for a job interview, or missing that opportunity all together.”

But the $2.2 billion dollar program has been under attack by the FCC and Republicans. They claim it is riddled with fraud and inefficiencies, in which free phones easily go to people who don’t qualify.

There are currently three bills pending in Congress that would seek to stop the Lifeline program (See bills: H.R.989S.874, and H.R.176).

Wilkes argues those efforts would keep Latino and low income families from being able to compete in a world run by wireless devices:

“I was in a rural area and they were talking about how they’re gonna start doing away with copper lines and just provide wireless connection to people’s homes, even for non-Lifeline subscribers. So if Congress carries this back, those individuals who are in those communities and would qualify for Lifeline, wouldn’t even have an acceptable alternative because the copper networks are starting to be phased out all across the country.”

Nicholas Sullivan, a fellow with the Center for Emerging Market Enterprises at Tufts University, is author of the 2011 study on subsidized cell phones for poor Americans.

“The Lifeline program when it was started, the focal point was health and public safety. In my report, I focused on the income generating potential for wireless phones — though it’s just kind of re-directing some of the emphasis from its original intent towards a more modern evaluation of the mobile phone as an economic tool.”

He says the study found that if all adults eligible for Lifeline assistance were to take advantage of the program, it would result in $3.7 billion dollars in fresh income for the poor, effectively paying for the program. More than 2 million Hispanics in the U.S. including over 96,000 here in Houston, depend on the Wireless Lifeline program.

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