Nine million Americans have access to a free government cell phone or data plan thanks to the Lifeline program. That may sound like a huge number, but the simple fact is the program assisted nearly eleven million low-income Americans as recently as 2017. But even that number looks small when compared to 2012 when the number of free government cell phone customers crested at 17.6 million.
In those heady days, the Lifeline program had a healthy $2.1 billion budget, almost twice the number of dollars currently allocated.
But now we’ve reached a time in which 47 states have suffered severe declines in Lifeline subscribers. Oregon is up by 15% but the two remaining states, Indiana and Louisiana, have managed to stay even. Barely. Meanwhile, the District of Columbia is down by 49%, Mississippi has plunged by 37%, and Wyoming has tailed off by 36%.
What has caused the precipitous decline in the number of Lifeline customers? USAtoday.com says attributes it to a number of factors.
Our first thought is that the booming economy between 2017 and early 2020 meant more working Americans and that meant far fewer qualified for the program. But a little something called the coronavirus messes with that concept despite the V-shaped recovery we’ve experienced.
In 2012, reforms placed stricter controls on Lifeline funds and created a subscriber database to reduce duplicate accounts. These reforms, along with an improving economy, led to a decline in Lifeline subscribers.
Over the past two years, the FCC has been introducing a computer system that, by automatically confirming eligibility for Lifeline subscribers and taking the review process out of the hands of providers, was supposed to further prevent fraud. A year after the 2018 rollout, however, the screening system isn’t working as planned.
The computer system, called the National Eligibility Verifier, lacks access to key federal and state databases needed to check eligibility. Enrollment is down in several states where the verifier is fully launched. In Mississippi and Wyoming, for example, it has dropped by more than one-third since the rollout began.
In an emailed statement, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said the steep drop in subscribers shows the crackdown is working.
“Given the high rate of improper payments in the Lifeline program,” Wigfield wrote, “it makes sense that subscribership in the program is decreasing as more anti-fraud efforts take effect.”
Other well-intentioned proposals may backfire, causing the number of subscribers to plummet even further.
The Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that supervises the Lifeline program, wants to increase the amount of mobile data service providers must offer each month, and simultaneously reduce the number of free minutes. While this sounds an improvement that directly addresses the needs of our changing world, critics fear unintended results. To be specific, they know that data costs more than voice minutes and forcing service providers to offer more of the former and less of the latter will put a profit squeeze on participating companies. The “experts” fear that weaker companies will drop out of the program, offering consumers fewer choices.
Is this news black or white? Positive or negative? Good or bad?
Mark Twain, author of American classics such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and many others, once observed, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
This may well be one of those cases.
States with the greatest change in Lifeline enrollment from March 2018 to June 2019
|State||Change since 2018|
|District of Columbia||-49%|
SOURCE: A Center for Public Integrity analysis of USAC data.