Georgia Republicans to the poor: ‘We can’t hear you now’
Originally enacted under President Ronald Reagan for traditional land-line phone service, the Lifeline program subsidizes a basic cell phone plan for individuals who meet certain poverty-related criteria. In recent years, the amount of fraud in the program increased, leading the Obama administration to enact changes to the program’s structure. But for the state of Georgia, these don’t go far enough.
After a high of around 1 million program participants in the early 2000s, about 740,000 Georgians currently participate. Officials with Georgia’s Public Service Commission claim this high number is indicative of fraud, and as such, Georgia has enacted a $5 fee for participants, billed monthly. The theory is that by charging $5, only those truly in need will apply and phone providers will be more careful in who they enroll, due to the added cost of mailing statements.
But, as the cell phone industry and Lifeline defenders point out, the new measure will cause significant harm both to Georgia’s eligible recipients as well as the companies providing the service (in addition to perhaps being price-setting, which is unconstitutional). The fee is just high enough to impose real hardship on program participants while also being just low enough to not cover the cost of billing. It’s easy to see how literally the poorest of Georgians would be turned away by the $5 fee, and due to the unrecoverable costs associated with the billing, companies will be less inclined to market the program.
The idea that widespread fraud is causing this participation rate is ludicrous — just a quick glance at Georgia’s demographics dispels the concern. A few quick facts:
- Georgia’s poverty rate is 19.2 percent;
- The unemployment rate is 10.1 percent;
- Low-wage jobs account for 26.7 percent of the workforce;
- The unbanked population is 11.5 percent; and
- Child poverty is 27 percent.
These figures paint a bleak picture. As a former resident with friends and family still in the state, I can assure you the suffering is real. With a 10.1 percent unemployment rate and 26 percent of jobs being low wage, it’s safe to assume somewhere in the neighborhood of 38 percent of Georgian adults are struggling financially. Since the Lifeline program is available to those within 135 percent of the poverty line, SNAP recipients and Medicaid recipients, having just 740,000 participants out of more than 9.5 million state residents actually means program participation is low.
Given this low uptake, the idea seems to be that it’s acceptable to punish your state’s most vulnerable citizens with a fee that likely won’t significantly reduce fraud. This implies that you are either out of touch with the realities in your state, unconcerned about those undergoing hardship, or more focused on preventing rule-breaking than helping the program fulfill its vision (or all three!) Taken a step further, it implies you think it’s acceptable to shame the poor in your state. No other reasoning explains enacting a solution unlikely to work, but likely to cause real damage. It says you have problems with the program itself, not that you think your solution is the optimal one.
It’s one thing to care about oversight and fraud. It’s another to enact “reforms” that jeopardize the program itself, punish legitimate participants and service providers, and may even be unconstitutional, simply for the sake of making a political statement. My suggestion to my home state would be to make people ineligible for the program through growth and opportunity rather than stepping beyond their statutory authority to once again prove that conservatives only care about spending, regardless of the collateral damage to those in need.