There are some times that I have a hard time mustering the energy to slap my fingers down on my keyboard. This isn’t out of lack of energy, mind you. This is because I know that I’m about to wade into a subject that is so stupid in the first place it makes my teeth itch. Obamaphones. You’ve heard the term; I’m sure of it. It refers pejoratively to a program that has its roots in a 1984 program started under President Ronald Reagan. The Lifeline Program, or as it’s known now, the Universal Service Fund, is an FCC program that helps provide telecommunications services to the extremely poor.
That’s right, you read the two magic words, “extremely poor,” so you know that Republicans hate it. They especially hate it because ill-informed Americans have started referring to the program as “Obamaphones,” since the program was changed and cell phones, not land lines were provided by the program. But regardless, it’s a program that provides help for poor people so of course Republicans are going to be up in arms about it. If there was a program that provided free garbage sandwiches to poor people, Republicans would complain that they have to dive into dumpsters themselves for their garbage food.
This was a big right-wing meme during the election. I saw tons of right-wingers snickering about The Poors and their free stuff, including Obamaphones. Then this morning I was sent a link to a National Review Online piece from Jillian Kay Melchoir, in which she did some “hard-hitting” investigative journalism. She went around signing up for multiple Lifeline phones, and the implication of course is that people can just sign up for dozens and dozens of tax-payer subsidized phones, bilking us all and proving that The Takers just can’t be trusted.
First, let me just point out one massive problem in Ms. Melchoir’s story — it’s all anecdotal. All she proved was that surprise, surprise the Federal government’s infrastructure isn’t set up to handle the demands of the digital age. Essentially what she has proven is that the Feds need to invest in a really good SQL database that is replicated and updated often, so that when someone files multiple applications, a red flag is raised in the system. She didn’t prove that millions of Americans are defrauding anyone. She proved that perhaps Republicans should stop clutching the purse strings so tightly so that our government can actually work efficiently…but there I go advocating functioning government, and we know that’s not going to happen, right?
Next, let’s not miss the opportunity to once again hammer home the subtext here. Republicans are angry that poor people need help, and that some of us are willing to give it to them. I often wonder if the same people would be upset about a government program that gives free phones to women who opt out of abortions or evangelical Christians. The point I’m trying to make is that if the people who were benefiting from the government assistance were people likely to vote for Republicans, do you think the right-wing would be quite so apathetic to the cause of poor people?
But if you really want your head to explode, just dig into the actual facts about the Universal Service Fund.
FACT ONE: THE UNIVERSAL SERVICE FUND IS NOT TAXPAYER-FUNDED
The Universal Service Fund is not paid for with your taxes. The fund is a central account set up by the government and the phone companies, not the taxpayers contribute to it. The phone companies do pass the cost of the fund off to their customers, and you can see it on your monthly telecom bill. Usually the fee is quite nominal. I just checked my cell phone bill from last month and paying to help poor people have access to a phone line so they can call 911 in an emergency and get calls from prospective employers cost me a whopping $3.08. Call me a socialist all you want, but I don’t find three bucks to be an offensive price tag for helping my fellow-man. If you do, you’re Fellow Man-ing wrong.
FACT TWO: CELL PHONES WERE ADDED TO THE PROGRAM UNDER BUSH, NOT OBAMA
Gee, I wonder why conservatives neglect to tell everyone that cellphones were added to the program in 2008. Oh, I know why, because Obama didn’t take office until 2009, the cell phone coverage was added under George W. Bush, and they can’t call them “Bushphones” and still demagogue Obama over them. I keep forgetting that intellectual honesty and Republicans go together like oil and AIDS. The program’s total cost before that point was about a half-million dollars. When the recession hit, more people qualified, and cell phones were covered, so the cost went up to about $2 billion.
FACT THREE: THE USF COSTS THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT 2% OF WHAT CORPORATE WELFARE COSTS
While the fund itself is paid into by the phone carriers, and not the tax payers, the Feds do still dump that two billion dollars into the program. That figure comes from the Feds reimbursing the telecom companies about nine dollars per line for the free service they provide. Don’t get me wrong; two billion is a huge chunk of change for you and me. But we’re not the Federal government, overseeing the lives and safety of 300 million people, are we? The fact is that we spend $100 billion a year on corporate welfare. That’s 50 Universal Service Funds. Why aren’t Republicans up in arms about spending fifty times as much every year just letting massive corporations skate on paying their bills, but they scoff at poor people getting phones so they aren’t cut off from civilization in an emergency.
They aren’t talking about it because they know as soon as you introduce just a modicum of perspective, their hand-wringing and histrionics suddenly become meaningless. Sure, if there’s fraud and waste in the USF program it should be rooted out and gotten rid of. But the fact remains that it’s incredibly obscene for people in this country to scream and cry about helping actual people who need help when we allow faceless money machines to bilk us out of far more. But hey, who ever said Republicans were worried about how terrible their policies and rhetoric make them look?