By Tamera Willis, a Fall 2013 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern
Lifeline may be the most misunderstood safety net program in the country.
As part of “Lifeline Awareness Week,” The New America Foundation, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, The National Consumer Law Center, and the Media Action Grassroots Network hosted an event on September 12 to discuss the importance of the Lifeline program. The event also encouraged advocates and policymakers to inform their constituencies about the significance of the services Lifeline provides.
The Lifeline program – implemented in 1985 by the Reagan administration and expanded by President George W. Bush – offers a discount on basic phone service to eligible low-income consumers, including veterans, struggling families, and communities of color. The rationale for the program is that families shouldn’t have to choose between putting food on the table and phone service.
The event began with remarks by Mignon Clyburn, acting FCC chairwoman, who spoke of the importance of promoting and expanding the Lifeline program. “First, the program does not support phones, it only supports telephone service, a distinction that is important,” Clyburn told the standing room only audience. “Second, this program is a significant benefit to about 14 million families, who otherwise could not afford phone service. It connects them to 911, social services, health care providers, and job opportunities.”
The panel included Jessica Gonzalez, vice president of policy and legal affairs at the National Hispanic Media Coalition; Chanelle Hardy, senior vice president for policy at the National Urban League and executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute; Catherine Sandoval, commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission; and Olivia Wein, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.
The panelists described how the Lifeline program provides people from all walks of life the ability to find a job, stay connected to their children, call for medical assistance, go back to school, and perform many other critical everyday tasks. Hardy emphasized the importance of the program for children, noting that Lifeline provides a link between parents and teachers, which improves educational attainment. She also said that student access to broadband internet connection would allow students to be more successful in school.
During the event, Gonzalez commented on the “misconception about who uses Lifeline,” saying that the picture is “ugly and inaccurate” and that “every single member of Congress has constituents on Lifeline.”
Following a national grassroots call highlighting the importance of the program, Sandoval released a statement supporting Lifeline in California, “The State of California works with the Federal Communications Commission and our sister states to administer Lifeline in a fiscally responsible and accountable manner. California leads the nation through the state’s third-party verification system and computer database that speeds confirmation of Lifeline eligibility before service is provided. The California Public Utilities Commission joins our colleagues in the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, in supporting Lifeline, a vital service that strengthens our economy and improves public safety.”
Gonzalez also shared a statement about how her personal story demonstrates the need for Lifeline. “I used the Lifeline program for a brief period of time, many years ago, after I was laid off from my teaching job,” she said. “With my Lifeline connection, I was able to look for a new job and apply to law school. Now, I am an attorney.”