Trump team votes to cut poor people off from cell phone service to help fund rich people’s tax cut

Ronald Reagan created the federal Lifeline program, but the party that reveres him redubbed them "Obama phones."

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File

Poor people would be cut off from their communities and from potential employers under a proposal approved Thursday to dramatically shrink a program Ronald Reagan created to subsidize phone service for the destitute.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai won a party-lines vote to contract the FCC’s Lifeline program in a variety of ways, ultimately by capping the amount of agency revenue from telecom companies that can be spent on the modest subsidies. Such a contraction “could completely cut off those still in need,” Reps. Gwen Moore (D-WI), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), and 56 other members of Congress warned Pai in a letter Wednesday.

“If your newly proposed changes were implemented, they would jeopardize access for countless individuals who use the internet to look for employment and educational opportunities, to access social services, or to find crucial health information,” the members wrote.

Pai’s move makes little substantive sense. The chairman has himself acknowledged the value of recent reforms to the program, the letter-signers wrote. The Lifeline system was built by Reagan, then modernized and expanded under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

“30 years ago when Ronald Reagan put the Lifeline program into law, prior to that…it was considered a luxury to have a phone in your house,” Moore told ThinkProgress. “But then people started recognizing telecommunication services as literally a lifeline. Under Republican president George W. Bush they expanded this beyond landlines, into cell phones, recognizing that if you’re looking for a job and an employer wants to offer you a job, how can they get back to you?”

When disaster strikes, as it has repeatedly this hurricane season in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere, people of means can more easily get out of harm’s way. For the roughly 7.3 million people who access the cell phone system through Lifeline, though, a dire situation could fast turn deadly without the ability to make a phone call.

“This doesn’t bother you if you just flew out of Miami-Dade up to Chicago with your relatives until they came in and fixed it,” Moore said, noting that the Bush-era expansion of Lifeline followed his administration’s disastrously bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

Pai’s scheme is marketed as a cost savings. But Lifeline funds come from phone, TV, and internet providers themselves, not from taxpayers. Shunting the “savings” from Pai’s scheme off to Treasury would effectively mean diverting money currently spent on helping lift people out of poverty into funding the GOP’s push to cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else, Moore said.

“When then-candidate Trump said to the African American community, whadda ya got to lose? Well he’s showing us what we‘ve got to lose,” Meeks told ThinkProgress. There are more white people than black people on Lifeline in raw totals, as is true with most safety net programs in this still overwhelmingly white nation. But black poverty is disproportionate to the country’s demographics, a fact reflected in the enrollment realities of Lifeline.

The program had, until recently, few critics at all. During the previous administration, racist resentment politics created a new wellspring of white conservative anger toward the phone subsidies, which are paid not by taxpayers but through fees paid to the FCC by telecommunications companies.

Right-wing media sources led by Fox News latched onto a video of a black woman rejoicing about her “Obama phone” and flogged the program as another example of the conservative claim that anti-poverty programs amount to political bribery to keep people of color voting Democratic. Before he was exposed as a serial sexual harasser, conservative commentator Charles Payne was a particularly vocal fomenter of white Republican resentment over the phone program. The Lifeline subsidies were “further enslavement of the ‘poor’,” Payne said.

“This program was put in place by Ronald Reagan, god rest his soul, but these phones are called Obamaphones,” Moore said. “It’s a trigger for white identity politics, just like how people love the ‘Affordable Care Act’ but they hate ‘Obamacare.’ These ‘Obama phones’ are the trigger that creates grievance and backlash.”

By shoving the Lifeline program into the whirring blades of racial resentment politics, Roger Ailes, Steve Bannon, and other racist provocateurs with gigantic media megaphones laid the groundwork for what Pai is looking to do to the system today. All the white nationalist wing of the party needed after that shift from consensus to division was some sort of document to cite as evidence that the program’s being abused.

Pai got his fig leaf in August, when the Government Accountability Organization put out a report claiming the Lifeline system of small monthly phone subsidies to people with incomes below 135 percent of the poverty line is rife with fraud. But their report is dishonest, Meeks, Moore and other program advocates said, because it relies on old data. Two separate waves of reform that created new validation systems, bumping millions of ineligible accounts off the system and bending its already modest cost curve downward, were not reflected in the August GAO study’s numbers.

But while Pai and Trump prefer to fight on the terrain of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” and argue with fact-checkers over the GAO’s conclusions, the actual human side of the program threatens to get lost. At a pricetag of just $1.5 billion — again, none of it paid by taxpayers — Lifeline is a cheap, efficient way of giving the destitute a hand up.

Jessica Gonzalez, Deputy Director of the non-profit communications access organization Free Press, recounted some stories of flesh-and-blood Lifeline beneficiaries before a Senate panel in September. She described a Los Angeles woman named Lourdes who said at a forum in May that she would be unable to find clients for her homecare work without her subsidized cell phone. Gonzalez herself relied on a Lifeline phone to get back into the workforce after a layoff, she said, decades ago when the program only served landlines.

Such stories don’t just illustrate where the Lifeline program got its name. It’s emblematic of how a safety net for the poorest benefits everyone, not just those who directly gain phone service through its subsidies. Increased ability to bounce back from unemployment or maintain contact with the outside world boosts the overall economy.

Poverty and unemployment are a drag on the consumer demand that ultimately drives real growth in the parts of the country where people sweat for a living. Lifeline doesn’t just safeguard people in emergencies, like the hurricane victims Meeks and Moore cite in their letter. It gives them a way to bounce back from everyday hardship, instead of falling through economic cracks that end up costing everyone money.

“Not only does it benefit poor people but it benefits the country,” Meeks said, noting that we rely on phones for everything from job hunting to medical scheduling to communicating with our children’s teachers. “If you take away those technological opportunities, you’re hurting the country because you’re hurting the individuals who are trying to progress. It’s reverse Robin Hood syndrome. You’re taking advantage of poor people who need the access online.”

It’s a simple notion with a 30-year legacy of bipartisan support. It was born under the auspices of Ronald Reagan, as close to a political saint as you’ll find among Republicans. So why is it suddenly under attack, using misleading data that everyone close to the actual program knows is misleading?

“This administration is top heavy. They have not had the experiences of struggling working-class families. They’re born with silver spoons in their mouth,” Meeks said.

That explanation is if anything too charitable for technology access advocates outside of the government. The real answer, Free Press’s Timothy Karr said in an interview, is simple.

“If there is a Trump doctrine, it’s undoing everything that was done by the Obama administration,” said Karr. “One of Pai’s first speeches on coming into office, he said he would make bridging the digital divide a priority of his tenure. Now he’s gone and done the opposite. It’s one of the cruelest things we’ve ever seen come out of the FCC.”