Cell phones for the Homeless – repost

This is the first in a series of reposts from my previous incarnation of this blog.  I’m reposting this partly because I’m about to do another just like this one based on a facebook post (I never get email forwards anymore, I wonder why?).  I don’t want to get into a flame war with people on his wall, so I’ll write here where no one will read it.  Below enjoy Cell Phones for the Homeless. Originally published 8/17/2010.

This topic is a little off the political path what with the uproar over a Muslim community center being built in a Burlington Coat Factory in New York taking up all the headlines.  The topic is cell phones for the homeless.

Earlier in the year a co-worker forwarded an email that purported to show that some homeless person at a government funded soup kitchen was getting a free meal while taking a photo of Michelle Obama with an expensive cell phone.  The email photo wasn’t faked.  It was real.  What the email implied was misleading.  The email was meant to make you think that your tax dollars were being used to give freeloaders free meals while they spent their money on Blackberry phones.

Snopes did a decent job of, not exactly debunking, but showing the “slant” of the email.  For one the kitchen is privately funded and doesn’t receive taxpayer funds; and, second, we don’t actually know if the person taking the picture is homeless or just someone who found out that Michelle Obama was in the neighborhood and wanted to snap a picture.

Though, lets assume the person was homeless.  Should a homeless person NOT have a cell phone?  One of the snide remarks people are always making to people begging for money is that they should get a job.  OK, lets say this homeless person is trying to get a job, how is the prospective employer supposed to contact him.  Pay phones have almost disappeared.  If they are lucky enough to live in a shelter, you risk missing calls or not getting a message.  That’s exactly what happened to one DC area homeless person who lost his job because he lived in a shelter and couldn’t get his calls and was deemed “unreliable”.  In fact, it was this Washington Post article (and here’s one from Ft. Worth) that made me realize that in some cases cell phones aren’t luxuries, they’re necessities.

But that was awhile ago.  This time I read a friend’s Facebook comment that complained about having to pay government fees and taxes on her cell phone bill, while people on food stamps get free cell phones.  The many people who responded to her comment shared her outrage.  I, having read that previous article on DC homeless, had a different reaction.  First, is it true that the government is giving cell phones free to people on food stamps?  Second, how much taxpayer money actually goes to that? Finally, how do I feel about it if what she says is true?

To the first question, I found out it is true.  People with low incomes can get a free pre-paid phone.  Turns out that it’s part of the Lifeline program.  Lifeline (which is one of four programs funded by the Universal Service Fund) is a program that helps people with low incomes get access to phone service.  For the longest time this meant a land line and a discount of $10.  Of course, the reason I haven’t had a land line in almost a decade is that it is ridiculously expensive for what it is.  I like most people only have a cell phone.  Well, Lifeline expanded and now offers people with low incomes Star-Tac and other basic phones free, with about 68 minutes a month free.  You’re right, this is an outrage.  No wait, what’s the opposite of outrage?

But wait, sure homeless and low income people need phones so they can get jobs and be contacted by employers, but why do I have to foot the bill?  Well, before I answer that, let me ask you a metaphorical question.  Would you be more upset if you had a splinter, or if someone cut off your toe?  The reason that I ask is that the proportion of the fees you pay to subsidize this are quite small compared to the proportion of this same fee that goes to give people in rural (farm, country) areas lower cost phone service.  And these people come from all income brackets.

In 2009, for instance, the Universal Service Fund dished out about $36.2 million nationally for free cell phones to the poor. The same year, it paid $4.6 billion to keep down the cost of the rural telephone service for people of all income levels.

To put that in perspective, for every dollar you paid so that someone in a rural area could have CHEAPER telephone service, you paid 4/5 of a penny towards a homeless person getting a phone.  If you want to be outraged you should tell these no good country lovers to move to the city if they want to be able to call for an ambulance or keep in touch with their children.  Why should I have to pay for that?

No that won’t outrage you, homeless & poor people are easier to kick.  People who live out in the country are noble.  Or, you’ll just ignore the part you don’t want to hear, as this guy did in the same article two paragraphs down, “People get these fees on their bills and don’t really understand where it’s going,” he said. “At the same time they’re now subsidizing the cell phone industry. You could also subsidize everything that a low-income family does — their computers, cars, everything.”
Seriously dude! 4/5s of a penny!  The Universal Service fund also helps get high speed internet access to rural hospitals, libraries and schools.  But it’s not cool to say, “We need to stop giving people in rural areas access to better medical care.”

To the last question, How do I feel about it. I think it’s obvious: I’m fine with it.  I’m a liberal and a progressive.  I believe that the role of government should be to help us out if we need it.  The problem is really how the argument is framed (and who frames it).  You see, you pay for insurance on your car, but if you never have an accident, you don’t get that money back.  You don’t develop equity.  Over your lifetime you throw thousands of dollars away on car insurance.  Your money (since you don’t get it back) is going to pay for that guy who has an accident.  Some guy gets in a wreck, your premiums pay for it.  I think of taxes as the same thing.  If I should ever stumble and need food stamps or a government subsidized cell phone so I can look for a job, that’s like me paying my insurance and then getting into a wreck.

But what about those people who take advantage of the situation?  People on food stamps who drive a Mercedes and have a 60″ flat screen. I wish they didn’t exist.  I wish everyone was nice and kind and that the world was fair.  But until it is, I’m not going to throw the baby out, just because his bath water is dirty.


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