Confession: You’re paying my phone bill.
In the past month, I have received three shiny new cell phones, courtesy of American taxpayers, that should never have fallen into my hands.
The Federal Communications Commission oversees the so-called Lifeline program, created in 1984 to make sure impoverished Americans had telephone service available to call their moms, bosses, and 911. In 2008, the FCC expanded the program to offer subsidized cell-phone service, and since then, the expenses of running the program have soared. In 2012, the program’s costs had risen to $2.189 billion, up from $822 million before wireless carriers were included. As of June, there were 13.8 million active Lifeline subscriptions.
To be eligible for Lifeline, the applicant is supposed to be receiving some significant government benefit — food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, public housing assistance, etc. But because welfare eligibility has expanded under the Obama administration, more people than ever before are qualified to receive “free” cell-phone service — part of the reason why Lifeline mobiles have become commonly known as Obamaphones. Alternatively, applicants can qualify if their household income is less than 136 percent of the federal poverty line.
But as with any federal program with too much funding, too little oversight, and perverse financial incentives, Lifeline has become infamous for rampant fraud and abuse. There have been news reports about recipients flaunting dozens of subsidized phones. And in February, the Wall Street Journal reported on an FCC audit of the top five Lifeline providers, which found that “41% of their more than six million subscribers either couldn’t demonstrate their eligibility or didn’t respond to requests for certification.”