How many people do you think are currently being helped by the Lifeline free government cell phone program? Go ahead. Take a guess. Five million? Seven million? Ten million?
The actual number of low-income Americans currently accessing a free government cell phone or data plan thanks via the Lifeline program is 7,000,000. Although that is a significant number, nearly eleven million low-income Americans were enrolled as recently as 2017, and an astounding 17.6 million were enrolled back in 2012 when the Lifeline program was at its peak.
States with the greatest change in Lifeline enrollment from March 2018-June 2019
American Samoa +7%
District of Columbia -49%
New Hampshire -28%
New Jersey -2%
New Mexico +2%
New York -4%
North Carolina -11%
North Dakota -12%
Puerto Rico -33%
Rhode Island -19%
South Carolina -10%
South Dakota -10%
West Virginia -10%
SOURCE: A Center for Public Integrity analysis of USAC data.
Unfortunately, the government directed more than $2.1 billion to Lifeline back in 2012, nearly twice as much as the current Lifeline budget.
Oh, how the environment has changed, and not for the better as far as low-income Americans are concerned. In Oregon, the number of Lifeline customers is up by 15% while Louisiana and Indiana are treading water. The remaining 47 states have seen enrollment slump dramatically. The worst of those are the District of Columbia, down 49%, Mississippi, down by 37%, and Wyoming, down by 36%.
Analysts differ on their explanations for this huge turnaround. Some experts attribute the decrease to the fact that the economy did so well between 2017 and early 2020. More jobs meant more Americans were working and that lead directly to fewer people qualified for Lifeline. Others attribute it to stricter guidelines and crackdowns on fraud abuse. But then the coronavirus popped up and threw a monkey wrench into all those theories.
USAtoday.com took a close look at the situation and lays the blame at the feet of a number of factors.
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.”
Now there may be another wrinkle, this one caused by the government itself, that could reduce enrollment even further.
Here’s how FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net explained the issue:
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.
To be entirely truthful, we cannot make up our minds whether these developments are good or bad. But we promise to keep an eye on the situation and keep our readers updated.