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News Opinion Editorial

A lifeline for the poor

Critics of a federal program that provides free cellphones to thousands of Maryland residents who can't afford regular commercial service are right that some recipients who don't qualify for the benefit are taking advantage of the system. But there's no question the program serves an important need for the families it targets, and the solution to its problems lies in better oversight and management, not scrapping it altogether.

The Lifeline program was created in 1984 to cushion the impact of telephone deregulation on poor families who otherwise might lose access to phone service. Last year the program had some 509,000 subscribers in Maryland, up nearly 90 times since 2008. The rapid growth in subscribers here and elsewhere has prompted some congressional Republicans to charge that thousands of people are abusing the system to get free phones from the government despite rules restricting their use to low-income residents.

Critics of the program point to a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office that found people who didn't qualify for the program had received phones — the program is limited to those whose incomes are below 135 percent of the poverty line (approximately $31,790 for a family of four), or those who qualify for certain other federal aid programs. The report also found cases in which people had received more that the one the phone allowed per family and people who had illegally resold phones over the Internet. After an audit by the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees Lifeline's operations, some 230,000 Marylanders were kicked off the program last year.

Obviously there's no excuse for people who try to game the system by taking advantage of benefits to which they clearly aren't entitled. But that's no reason to deprive the people who are legally eligible for the program of a service they desperately need.

Finding a job in today's sluggish economy can be a long and difficult process under the best of circumstances; attempting to do so without access to a phone to contact prospective employers, set up interview appointments or receive callbacks makes it a nearly impossible task. Yet one of the first things people often have to give up after losing a job is their phone, simply because they no longer have enough income to pay the bill.

The same goes for homebound chronically ill or elderly low-income individuals. At any moment they may need to get in touch with family members, doctors or emergency response personnel with requests for assistance, and the telephone is literally their lifeline to the outside world. That is why former President Ronald Reagan recognized the need for such a program during his first term in office and President George W. Bush later expanded it to include cellphone carriers.

The fact that two conservative Republican presidents endorsed Lifeline shows this isn't a partisan issue, even though GOP budget hawks have recently taken to denigrating the program for handing out "Obama phones" to the poor as political payback for their support of Democrats in the last election. Never mind that the program is funded almost entirely through surcharges levied on private and commercial phone users by the telecom companies, or that it is administered by an independent nonprofit group overseen by the FCC. There's no tax money involved, and the president has nothing to do with it.

Some congressional critics of the program want to make it apply only to land lines — presumably out of some misguided notion that a cellphone is a luxury. That may once have been the case, but not anymore. Others are trying to claim that President Obama has somehow expanded the program. That is just as untrue as the claims that he is the "food stamp president." In both cases, it was the recession and its lingering aftereffects, not the president's actions, that have made more people eligible for these programs, and Congress has done precious little to fix that problem.

The FCC is doing what it is supposed to do in back-checking the nonprofit agency responsible for Lifeline's day-to-day operations. The agency fell down on the job in some cases, in allowing far too many people who were ineligible for the phones to get them. But things could have been a lot worse if the FCC hadn't stepped in when it did. Rooting out fraud and corruption is essential if the program is to continue being able to serve the legitimate users who need it most, and it's also the best way to protect a valuable service for the poor from becoming a political football for partisan gain.

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