2.3 million poor Americans have lost vital phone service under Trump


Changes to the Lifeline program have kicked millions out of a crucial program for low-income individuals.

At least 2.3 million low-income individuals have lost access to phone service subsidized by the federal government under the Trump administration, according to a new report by the Center for Public Integrity and USA Today.

The Lifeline program, which operates under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was established in 1985. The service has in recent years been attacked by Republicans and right-wing media, including Fox News, as the purported provider of "Obama phones."

"The Lifeline program has provided a discount on phone service for qualifying low-income consumers to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings," the FCC website notes.

In 2017, however, the FCC made changes to the phone program that pushed out previously eligible recipients. Trump administration officials defended the changes despite their negative impact on millions of families.

"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," the Center for Public Integrity and USA Today reported.

"Enrollment nationwide has dropped by 2.3 million people — about 21 percent — since 2017," the outlets noted.

The new system, the National Eligibility Verifier, is unable to check eligibility for applicants against what the report describes as "key" federal and state databases. As a result, in the states where the system has been completely rolled out, enrollment dropped by over a third.

The report found that participation in the Virgin Islands dropped 94% after the verification system launched.

The FCC says the program is working as intended.

"It makes sense that subscribership in the program is decreasing as more anti-fraud efforts take effect," FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield told the outlets, defending the new system.

Others say that claims the verifier is eliminating fraud are merely a smokescreen to cut benefits for the needy.

"This is a deliberate and disgusting assault on people who live in poverty," Crystal Rhoades, a member of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, told the Center for Public Integrity and USA Today.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), which represents state public service commissioners across the country, passed a resolution in July slamming the new system.

"Many potentially and apparently eligible Lifeline subscribers have not been re-verified and some have been de-enrolled from the program, and new enrollments have dropped substantially in states where the National Verifier has been hard launched," the resolution stated.

NARUC requested that the FCC "work quickly and collaboratively with service providers and other stakeholders to fix the National Verifier before use of it is required in any state."

FCC commissioner Ajit Pal, a Trump appointee, has insisted that addressing fraud was the main motivation for making changes to the Lifeline system.

"Our goal is to make sure the Lifeline program for once and for all, focuses on consumers, not on the unscrupulous companies that for too long have bilked the FCC," he testified to the Senate in August 2018.

The Lifeline changes have drawn comparisons to other administration initiatives designed at cutting help to the needy.

In addition to pushing millions off the federally subsidized phone program, the Trump administration has also worked to limit the number of people who can receive food assistance, changing current rules that permit states to waive work requirements for those experiencing difficulty in finding a job.

Trump has also sought to deny green cards to poor immigrants, who need those documents to access Medicaid, food stamps, and other government benefits.

Additionally, the Trump administration has been criticized for failing to file reports on actions taken to address environmental concerns in low-income or minority areas, reversing the trend of regular updates under the Obama administration.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.