Cutting through ‘Obama phone’ mythology

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When President Obama’s political opponents have criticized his spending priorities over the last couple of years, one notion that frequently creeps into the discussion is that low-income people have been given cellphones free of charge since Obama took control of the executive branch, or that cell phones were given away in advance of the 2012 election.


They’ve been given the name “Obama phones,” in the same way that the Affordable Care Act has been bestowed with the sobriquet “Obamacare.”


These alleged free phones have become such a source of sweaty outrage that the House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing later this month to get to the bottom of this seeming boondoggle and possibly slice away at its funding, The Washington Post reported last week. In his response to the president’s State of the Union address in February, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul even remarked that “for those who are struggling, we want you to have something infinitely more valuable than a free phone.”


But, just like the claims that Obama was born in Kenya, is a secret Muslim, a closet Communist, or that he and his family take extravagant trips on the federal tab (the costs of travel for the president and his family have been in line with those of his predecessors), the furor surrounding “Obama phones” is founded less in fact than conspiratorial fantasy.


The program to help subsidize the phone service of low-income residents was founded in 1985 during the administration of that well-known free-spender Ronald Reagan. Dubbed Lifeline, it was launched with the idea that poor people need to have phone service in order to fully engage in everyday life – of course, not having a phone (or, now, Internet service) makes it very hard for a prospective employer to contact someone about a job opportunity that would help them get on a path to economic self-sufficiency. Some of the requirements of taking part in the program include being a Medicaid recipient, or receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. It’s paid for out of the Universal Service Fund, a kitty to which telecommunications providers are required to contribute for the right to provide their services. Money from the fund also goes to schools and libraries so they can provide phone and Internet services. No taxpayer dollars are involved.


The Lifeline subsidy, simply put, makes sense.


During the tenure of George W. Bush, it was expanded to include cellphones, which is also sensible – many of the poor, like their more well-off counterparts, have discontinued their landline service.


But many of Obama’s detractors have inflated Lifeline into urgent evidence that the president is laying the groundwork for a socialist state, heedlessly handing out treats to the “takers.” In fact, in Obama’s first term, the Federal Communications Commission started to take a closer look at the Lifeline program, and it’s estimated that the increased scrutiny – again, launched on Obama’s watch – will save $400 million this year. The waste was apparently the result not of government largess, but of private-sector cell phone providers eager to collect the allowance signing up customers without first checking to see if they met the requirements.


The president is not beyond criticism, of course. His views and policy prescriptions, and those of every other lawmaker, should be subject to vigorous argument and debate. That’s what a democracy is all about. But the conversation should be grounded in fact, not mythology.


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