Speak Your Piece: Take Lifeline Online

The Lifeline program helps low-income Americans stay in touch with their doctors, employers, children's schools, and others through subsidized phone service. Expanding the service to include broadband will make it even more valuable, says a participant.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: At its June 18, 2015, meeting, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on revisions to the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone service for low-income Americans. The measures would reduce fraud and waste, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, and would allow participants to use their $9.25-per-month subsidy to help pay for broadband instead of a telephone. Below, is a perspective from a Lifeline participant from West Virginia. A second article, from economist Brian Whitacre, examines the potential economic impact of expanding the Lifeline program.

Related Article: Lifeline’s Economic Impact

It took a lot for me to get where I am today — and my Lifeline phone played a huge role in bringing it all together.

The Lifeline program is intended for low-income people who cannot afford a phone. The FCC has supplemented wireless phones with minutes and text messages available for these people to stay connected and develop self-sufficiency. The objective of the Lifeline phone is to provide communication between employers, caseworkers, schools and any other line of business. The hope is that being connected with these important institutions and people will help decrease the low-income population.

Late in 2013 I took on a decent paying job to to help with my expenses as a single parent. Then, the only service I needed from the state was childcare — it was absolutely impossible to pay childcare expenses. I was hired on at a dealership that was family-owned, making $13.50 an hour. My income only covered my rent and a couple utility bills, not all of them. I was just making it- paycheck to paycheck. Then my childcare was discontinued because I “made too much money”. I had to voluntarily quit my job and stay home with the kids. Slowly but surely, all of our assets disappeared. Our communication went first, house second and car third. I had to start again from the bottom. The first thing I needed was communication. At a minimum, I needed it to communicate with social services to apply for benefits.Then I would need it to apply for jobs (that wouldn’t exceed the childcare income guidelines) and enroll my children into school/daycare. I received a letter in the mail about a free phone that would supplement me with 250 minutes and 1,000 text messages, so I applied. It was perfect timing.

When I received my Lifeline phone in the mail, I was instantly connected again. It was such an easy process applying, receiving and activating the phone. Immediately, I applied for child care again. I had a plan and my Lifeline phone was “the ship I needed to sail. “You never know how important it is to be connected until you are disconnected. Once the kids were in childcare, I was able to apply for a large number of jobs and other services that would aid me in getting back on my feet. In the course of rehabilitating my family’s life, a friend of mine asked me what I thought about Elkins, West Virginia. I was living in Virginia. She mentioned that the cost of living was manageable, and it would be a great way to get our life back on track. At first I thought she was crazy for even suggesting the idea. Then I thought, “What could I lose?” I was on the path that could only gain.

Photo by Shawn Poynter
Sharell Harmon would like to see the LIfeline program amended to include broadband access as well as mobile phone minutes.
I called the Randolph County Housing Authority in Elkins. That easily, thanks to my Lifeline phone, I could call them – no problem. I was able to stay connected through every step of the process of obtaining housing assistance in Elkins. When anyone is trying to obtain housing assistance, the first thing they let you know is it’s very important that you always have your current telephone number and address on file. The central forms of communication with housing organizations are by telephone or mail. I followed through and made the move to Elkins. Once I got there, my Lifeline phone played an even greater role. Again, I had to apply for different services to aid in my goal of self-sufficiency. I used my Lifeline telephone and phone number for all the business I had to conduct for the move and for anything that had to do with the kids. There was a lot of transferring I had to do immediately after moving to Elkins. November and December of 2014 was probably the most critical time in my family’s life this far, and being connected was the most important contribution to success. My Lifeline phone has literally been “my lifeline.” When I was pregnant, I scheduled all of my Ob-Gyn visits with the lifeline phone and the doctors and different specialist were able to contact me on the lifeline phone. I also used the phone to enroll my children in the Head Start program, find housing in Randolph County, and to communicate with the school about my children. My kids were terribly sick fall 2014 and it was a blessing to be connected with the lifeline phone. I don’t think there is a better name for the program. For many people and their families, it can save their lives.

I believe there is always room for improvement, and that’s true of the Lifeline program. Another bill I’ve always struggled with, being a single mom, is internet/Wi-Fi. When I pay bills, it’s always a process of elimination for what bills will get paid that paycheck and which will get paid the next time around. Paying for the Internet was always an issue, and many times I’ve faced disconnection. That’s when I realized how important it is to have access to the Internet. When I lost my Internet connection earlier this year because I couldn’t pay the bill, I sold some household items and electronics to get reconnected. But that won’t work month after month.

Because the Internet has become such an important part of how we all communicate, I believe that broadband service should be incorporated into the Lifeline program. Many employers and educators require online job applications and email communication. The Internet is also the way I’m furthering my education. I can’t be physically in a classroom, so online classes are critical. And you never know the importance of being connected until you are disconnected.

I trust that the Lifeline program could do even more for people if broadband were a part of the package.

Sharell Harmon is a 23-year-old student at Youth Build North-Central West Virginia. She lives in Elkins, West Virginia.

 

Related Story: Could Lifeline Expansion Help the Economy?

A new proposal would allow Lifeline recipients to get help with their broadband connection instead of their phone. An economist looks at the potential impact of getting more low-income Americans online.

 

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