“Hold up, I gotta put some minutes on my Obama phone,” said my friend Terrance, back in 2011. But I heard him mention “Obama Phone” in subsequent years. And when he first told me about this thing that sounded extra fake, I couldn’t help but imagine it was a direct line to the White House to speak to the President. But curiosity over-rode the fear of sounding like an idiot so I asked, “You can call the White House with that?”

He laughed, for a good ten minutes or so, but never explained what he was going on about. We went off and had drinks after that. And through the years I just gleaned that the program was made available through the government to provide cell-phone access to millions (13.3 million in 2013) of lower-class people, particularly minorities, who would not normally be able to afford them.

Now, I know exactly how this thing works.

Apparently Reagan did do some good for the black community. Way back in 1985, Lifeline, a program run by the FCC began. It provided affordable phone service for these low-income owners, a huge relief for those unable to afford Sprint and AT&T and the late-fees these companies love tacking on. Funnily enough, according to The Atlantic, the plan was created in order to break up the monopoly AT&T had on telecommunications back in 1983.

obama phone, lifeline phone, low income phone service, black excellenceAt the time, the phones themselves weren’t paid for, so a low-income person had to pay to get the phone, and pay a small amount for service. The FCC website shows a $9.25 a month charge for service in 2017. That’s for 500 minutes and 3G broadband.

Then, because of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, companies had to contribute to a fund in order to build more phone poles and towers, and to provide more services to make phones even more accessible to, primarily blacks and browns, and people living in the country. More phone towers in more areas and landlines to schools in rural neighborhoods, because, well, in case of an emergency, or something.

In my opinion, they were idiots for not laying this out in the initial draft of the thing. It’s called Lifeline for a reason—to provide a lifeline to people most vulnerable and at the greatest risk of needing a phone and not having one.

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Lifeline got a real boost during 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when they were there to provide phones to the worst affected by the storm. The phones were administered via a company called TracFone, based out of Miami. And this is one of the real reasons for the necessity of these services.

Since at least 2009, Republicans on The Hill have been trying to cut funding for the program, you know, that usual deal, where they try to end things that make people happy. How soon they forget that it was started in ’85 under a Republican, expanded to include payment for the phones, making the phones themselves free in 2005, under another Republican whose name shall not be mentioned anywhere in this piece.

Before our most recent Democratic president, no one saw fit to connect these phone services to any one person. Then, just like with the ACA, someone decided to rename the program after a certain black guy took office, presumably because any adjustments he made to Lifeline could fail, and there would only be one person to blame. It’s cool, though. At least he didn’t create Obamanomics and lead us into the crack epidemic.

A major issue that did pop-up, however, was a very salacious story that showed some people were getting more than one Obama Phone, on a cellular device contract that stipulated one per person. And that happens in a country like ours, some will try to game the system and sort of ruin the good for the rest of us. I don’t assume all hedge fund managers commit fraud, but 2008 certainly showed proof that the ones who do can tank economies. Plural. When a disaster that costs millions of jobs and loses up to $12.7 trillion dollars worldwide is less worrisome to you than the fraction of poor people who abuse government subsidies, you really gotta rethink your priorities. Or get a CT scan.

John Boehner tweeted this gem in 2009: “Nobody should be talking about tax hikes when govt is spending taxpayer dollars on free cell phones.” Well, Lifeline doesn’t get its money from taxes; Lifeline gets money from the fees that phone companies pay into it.

The Act has never been taxpayer funded. Taxpayers do pay for coverage, but not via federal income. Instead, The Act tacks on a USF feed. You see it at the bottom of your phone bill. That’s what you’re paying for.

After every new addition to the phone, more people have had something to say to strike it down. You can now get a touchscreen phone. You can get internet on the phone. You can play games and text all you like. Because nobody wants to feel poor, even if they are. Giving these services to people who could never hope to own an iPhone is crazy, isn’t it? Why should they enjoy the same features and applications for so cheap when they could be paying $1,000 dollars for a piece of crap that shatters as soon as you drop it? For shame.  

Naturally, Congress has cut back on spending for the phones, playing on the public’s misconception that they’re just another service provided by a “welfare state” that Obama helped encourage. $200 million dollars was trimmed from the budget of Lifeline back in 2014, evening it out to a solid $2 billion dollars.

“I got two jobs and still gotta rely on this Obama phone,” said my friend Terrance recently. I shrugged, and gave him a hug. Wasn’t quite sure what to say. And that’s the sadness of all of this, because he’s been out of minutes on multiple occasions, because he’s been unfortunate enough to have several emergencies, back-to-back. One of those minutes could mean his life is on the line, and no one will be able to hear his last words, unable to get the help that ironically is promised when filling out the paperwork to get the phone.  

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.

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