NBC News recently ran an analysis of the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program that started with these hopeful words:
“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to expand Lifeline, a government program that subsidizes telephone service for the poor. Yet very little is understood about the people who depend on the assistance.”
We couldn’t wait to read the in-depth analysis of the program’s customers. We couldn’t wait for America’s leading news organization to explain more fully so more people would understand this invaluable program. Unfortunately, superficial fiddle faddle is what we got instead:
California, New York and Florida are among the states that depend on the subsidy the most. The Golden State tops the list with about 1.5 million subscribers, according to data from the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC), while the Empire State has just under 1 million. Wyoming and South Dakota have the fewest subscribers, USAC data shows.
Here’s a news flash, NBC: California, New York and Florida may just have the most Lifeline customers because they are the states with the first, third and fourth largest populations. Duh. It also stands to reason that Texas, the state with the second highest population, isn’t on the list because it has no state income tax, which allows people to keep more of their disposable income, and because of the oil boom, which has lowered the state’s unemployment rate.
To continue along the same lines, Wyoming and South Dakota may just have the fewest subscribers because they have so few people — Wyoming’s population ranks 50th out of the fifty states and South Dakota ranks 46th.
Aha, you any say. What about the states that rank 47th, 48th and 49th. Please allow us to explain. North Dakota, which ranks 47th in population, has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate because of the oil boom. Fewer Alaskans qualify for the free government cell phone program in Alaska because the state’s average wage is 20% higher than the U.S. average. And as of February 2016, Vermont’s unemployment rate was an enviable 3.6%.
NBC continues its “insightful” analysis:
States and tribal territories that offer both of the top Lifeline providers—Assurance Wireless, a subsidiary of Virgin Mobile, and SafeLink Wireless, a subsidy of TrackFone (sic)—tend to have the largest subscriber figures, according to Philip Colvin of USAC, which serves as the program’s administrator.
He added that those mobile providers are the most aggressive at promoting Lifeline plans, which is probably why they have the most subscribers.
When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton, an infamous criminal from the 1930’s, said, “Because that’s where the money is.”
Despite what NBC News may say, it’s clear that the same theory is true in this case. States don’t have larger numbers of Lifeline subscribers because that’s where Safelink Wireless and Assurance Wireless do business. The exact opposite is true. Safelink and Assurance do business in those states because that’s where the subscribers are — in states with more people and more poverty.
At this point, NBC News was like a baseball manager who went out to the mound and took out his starting writer and brought in a relief writer to continue the Einstein-like genius. In this case, the USAC’s Philip Colvin was replaced by Ken McEldowney of Consumer Action:
Lifeline recipients “by definition are very poor” and they don’t have access to other telecommunication services, said Ken McEldowney, executive director of the Consumer Action advocacy group. The majority speak English, but there’s a large number of them who are Spanish speaking, according to McEldowney.
The program aids a “complete cross section of low-income consumers, McEldowney says. However, there are also a large number of Asian Americans and senior citizens who receive Lifeline assistance, he added, noting that the demographics change depending on the state.
McEldowney’s contention that “demographics change depending on the state,” requires a quick translation:
States with lower poverty rates generally have fewer free government cell phone customers per capita. States with fewer Spanish speakers have have fewer Spanish-speaking free government cell phone customers per capita. States with fewer Asian Americans have fewer … well, there’s probably no need to continue beating this dead horse.
We’re happy that NBC News chose to cover the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program. We just wish they would have dug in a little deeper and given it the attention and analysis it deserves.
Low-income Americans deserve no less.