Nolan Finley, writing for the Detroit News, is making the case this week for setting an example in defunding wasteful entitlement programs by axing the “Obamaphone.” He refers to the $2.1 billion annual program providing free cell phones to low income individuals who qualify for other federal assistance so that they can seek and obtain work, contact family members or dial for emergency help. But the program is widely known to be fraud riddled, with an estimated 40% of phones going to the ineligible. So why hasn’t it been scrapped or at least overhauled?
So why hasn’t it been axed? Because federal spending programs rarely die, and are even more rarely reformed.
Every dollar the government spends has a constituency. In this case, the private companies providing the phones are perversely motivated to ignore eligibility requirements — the more phones they pass out, the more money they make. The recipients of the phones are voters, and the administration has no incentive to alienate its own voters to save such a piddling amount as $2.1 billion.
For evidence of precisely how corrupt this boondoggle has become, he points to the experiences of National Review writer Jillian Kay Melchior, who managed to obtain not one, but three phones in short order, without lying about her status in any way and while being completely ineligible. Be sure to read her story.
Confession: You’re paying my phone bill.
In the past month, I have received three shiny new cell phones, courtesy of American taxpayers, that should never have fallen into my hands…
My first task was figuring out where to register. The rule of thumb is that wherever you can sign up for food stamps, you can apply for an Obamaphone.
Representatives from SafeLink and Assurance, two of the leading New York Lifeline vendors, stand outside the food-stamp offices, paired like Mormon missionaries, young and polite and earnest. They carry electronic tablets and ask all passersby whether they’ve received their free phone “yet” — as if it were an inevitability.
While checking into this “Lifeline” program for myself, I found that it does indeed predate President Obama by a long shot. (This is one complaint of liberals who complain that questions regarding the program are partisan nonsense and there’s nothing to see here.) It started in the 80’s, but it really kicked into high gear in 2008 when cell phones were added.
The other, almost laughable argument comes from staunch administration defenders who say that it isn’t even a taxpayer funded program in the first place.
Q: Has the Obama administration started a program to use “taxpayer money” to give free cell phones to welfare recipients?
A: No. Low-income households have been eligible for discounted telephone service for more than a decade. But the program is funded by telecom companies, not by taxes, and the president has nothing to do with it.
Advanced students will see something wrong with this answer right off the bat. Did you catch it? The program is “funded by telecom companies.” Really? You mean the telecom giants are so concerned about helping people and heedless of profits that they’re just giving away phones and service programs because they’re such a nice bunch of guys and gals? When you stop laughing, you can read on to see exactly how the telecoms are “funding the program.” The money comes from a tax imposed on every service contract sold in the country. While it’s true that not every single person in the country has a cell phone and a contract, that’s like saying that highway programs paid for by that extra money you pay for every gallon of gas aren’t “taxpayer funded.” It’s a gas tax. And the fact that not every single person drives does not make it less of a tax.
It’s a valid question which could be addressed during the coming budget battles. If you can’t come up with a way to fix the program, scrap it. And then start on the bazillion other programs which fall into the same category.