This year has seen several high profile cases involving Lifeline Assistance fraud. Lifeline Assistance, the free government cell phone program, provides a free landline or cell phone to Americans in need. It tends to take a lot of heat when companies like Icon Telecom are discovered stealing millions of dollars in government funds. Somehow a lot of the anger gets directed not at the companies that are responsible for the biggest fraud schemes, but toward individuals who inappropriately receive Lifeline Assistance—never mind that many of the fraudulent reimbursements claimed by companies do not even involve real customers.
In the ongoing crossfire over the usefulness of the program, I think that the reality of Lifeline Assistance often falls by the wayside. Politicians keen on dismantling the program paint the average Lifeline customer as someone who is doing just fine on their own and does not really need a Lifeline phone. Considering that Lifeline entitles qualifying customers to $9.25 in discounted phone service, if someone went out of their way to steal $9.25 in telephone services each month, that would be petty theft (faking an application seems like quite a lot of work for petty theft). Stealing millions of dollars of course is anything but petty theft—but again, those stealing the millions are companies, not customers.
So who does need Lifeline Assistance? What does a typical honest Lifeline customer look like?
- Seniors who are barely getting by on their SSI income
- Veterans struggling to make a living on SSI benefits
- Out-of-work, struggling, hard-working Americans of all ages
- Disabled Americans at all ages who cannot earn money
Sometimes it is easier to get a clear understanding of the importance of a program through examples. Take a look at the following hypothetical examples. These imaginary Lifeline customers represent very real demographics that benefit from Lifeline Assistance:
Kathy and Ted are two seniors ages 64 and 71 living on social security. Between them, their SSI payments cover around $1,500 of their living expenses each month. They have only $12,000 in savings, and neither of them is able to work because of health conditions and low demand for senior workers. They barely are able to pay their mortgage and eat, much less afford anything beyond their basic living expenses, and there is no hope in sight for a new line of income. But thanks to Lifeline Assistance, Kathy and Ted don’t have to worry about paying a cell phone bill. They get to keep in touch with friends and family.
Seniors account for a huge percentage of Lifeline Assistance subscribers. In an economy where it is tough for even the most qualified young worker to get a job, it is almost impossible for most seniors to find gainful employment. Here’s another example of a typical Lifeline customer:
Jeff is a 66-year-old veteran who has worked hard all his life. He recently has had to retire from his job of twenty years because of disabling health problems connected to old injuries he received when he was on active duty overseas. Even though he has social security benefits, he has a hard time paying his basic monthly bills. Because of his disabling injuries, he can no longer work, even if he could find a job. But with a Lifeline Assistance phone, he does not have to worry about staying in touch with his family. He also is able to keep in touch with veteran services that can help him survive.
Disability is a problem that affects many Americans, not just senior citizens and veterans. Many people with disability cannot work, but receive scarcely any income through disability payments.
Jean is just thirty-two years old, but she has crippling arthritis along with a slew of other health problems that have left her unable to work. Her situation is bad enough that she receives disability benefits through the government, but they only total out to $600 a month. Her partner works for minimum wage, and between them, they are still living below 135% of the federal poverty level. Each month they worry they will default on their mortgage. But a Lifeline Assistance cell phone takes at least one financial burden off their hands, and helps them communicate with the bank, lenders, and social workers who help them.
Unemployment is still crippling our economy as well. The nationwide unemployment rate as of April 2014 is 6.3%, representing millions of Americans. In many states it is even higher than that. Even among the employed, poverty is common, with the minimum wage even in higher-earning states being barely sufficient to pay the cost of living. Here are a couple more examples of people who benefit from Lifeline.
Ron is a highly qualified engineer who graduated three years ago with a four-year degree. He was at the top of his class, and graduated in hopes of working on cutting-edge hardware applications. Since graduating, he has been unable to find a job, despite applying to hundreds of positions around the country. The demand in his field has simply dropped far too low, and every year that the gap in his resume widens, the harder it is to be taken seriously. Ron’s Lifeline Assistance phone helps him to stay in contact with the food stamp office and the unemployment office, as well as potential employers and his temp agency.
Ron has been unemployed for a long time, despite being a hard-working, qualified American with a degree in a challenging technical field. Some people believe that those who are unemployed are only unemployed because they have no skills or ambition or because they are lazy, but that is simply not true. And even those who settle for lesser jobs cannot necessarily afford to pay their bills.
Heather graduated with a four-year degree but has been unable to find a job in her field, and has had to settle for working at a fast food chain restaurant for her state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. She works full time and only manages to make $1,160 per month—before taxes. Even with a second job, she would probably barely be able to pay rent. She could go homeless any day despite being a hard worker. At least she doesn’t have to worry about losing her link with the outside world, thanks to Lifeline. She can continue searching for a better job and staying in touch with government benefit offices. Despite her full-time job, Heather’s extremely low income qualifies her for more than one government aid program.
This last example should pull into harsh perspective the economic situation in our country. Even full-time employees working whatever jobs they can find are so impoverished that they need food stamps to eat and Medicaid to pay their health bills. These programs are far more expensive than Lifeline Assistance, and yet politicians continue to debate the merit of the Lifeline program. Lifeline allows Americans who are falling through the cracks to literally have a lifeline to the outside world—to the government services they need to survive, and in some cases, potential employers who could give them a means to support themselves at a real living wage.
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