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Do Obamaphones Really Exist?

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I first heard about the “Obamaphone” from the audio clip posted above. As many listeners know, I have used government programs like food stamps, and W.I.C., but despite not having a land-line in my home I have never had anyone offer me a government subsidized phone of any kind.

So what is this lady talking about? As it turns out, the government does offer reduced rate phones. A quick visit to the Federal Communications Commission reveals a program called Lifeline. According to the FCC, The Lifeline program “provides discounts on monthly telephone service (wireline or wireless) for eligible consumers. These discounts average $9.25 per month, and may be more depending on the state.”

Believe it or not, the lady in the video is partially right when describing how one is able to use the Lifeline program,”You sign up, if your on food stamps, you on social security, you got low income, you on disability . . .”

According to the FCC you can apply for Lifeline if you are at 135% of the national poverty level or, (much more likely),  if you use any of the followig government services :

Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps or SNAP); Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 8); Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP);Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program; Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance; Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF); Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR); Head Start (if income eligibility criteria are met); or State assistance programs (if applicable).

So, two questions remain, who pays for all this and is the term “Obamaphone” justified? All phone companies and some VoiP companies pay a special tax to the government based off of their revenues. Anyone who pays a phone bill can find the charge listed as a fee for “Universal Service” or reportedly in the “other fees” line item.

President Obama did not come up with the idea of “Universal Service.” The line is actually a business slogan “One Policy, One System, Universal Service” that used to be used by AT&T back when there was a monopoly of the phone network. The actual tax originated with the F.D.R. Administration and the issuance of the Communications act of 1934.

There is little to commend that the idea that the Lifeline service is an “Obamaphone” other than the fact that there has been a dramatic expansion of social programs (most notably S.N.A.P. and Medicaid) under the Obama administration. Because those that use many of these social programs also qualify for Lifeline there has most likely been a dramatic increase in the number of people who use the Lifeline service (I have no numbers to prove this, just going off of the expanded pool of applicants).

I would not be surprised to discover that community organizations in many of the nation’s larger cities have been publicizing the Lifeline service. I would venture to guess that many of these community organizers may have trumpeted the benefits of an Obama re-election while talking about Lifeline thus leading to the imaginary creation of the Obamaphone.



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