The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


As those of us who own and pay monthly bills for our mobile phones know, there are a variety of "taxes" and "fees" that are tacked onto the bill. One of them is the "Universal Service Charge." That's actually a tax that is used to provide mobile phones for those who need them and can't afford them, that is, folks on food stamps (47 million people), medicaid (62 million people), housing assistance, and a variety of other government social programs. Called "Lifeline," the program was started under George W. Bush in 2005 and grew dramatically under Barack Obama. In the first six months of 2014, 13 million "free" cell phones where handed out under the program.

Here's the problem. The program is rife with fraud and abuse, but no one really seems to care. The vendors who distribute the phones get government subsidies and incentives based on the number of phone distributed. And as a consequence ... you can finish this story. Millions of phones are given to people who don't qualify under federal rules.

The CBS affiliate in Denver is one of the few media outlets who have investigated this (it's reasonable to ask why this story hasn't been elevated to a national level, but you already know the answer to that). They write:
... on multiple trips to Colfax Avenue and Broadway in Denver, where multiple distributors set up their tents to hand out free cellphones, a CBS4 producer and reporter found the phone agents willing to circumvent strict government rules designed to ensure that only the truly needy get the free phones. The vendors receive massive government subsidies to hand out the phones and the accompanying monthly plans.

“Want to sign up for a free phone?” an agent representing Total Call mobile asked a CBS4 producer. The representative then asked if the undercover producer had a food stamp card, a Medicaid card or any other evidence that he qualified for a phone.

“No,” replied the CBS4 employee. But one of the cellphone agents then ordered his colleague to “push it through,” by using someone else’s food stamp card to provide eligibility for the CBS4 employee.

“Did you just use that guy’s food stamp card for me?” questioned the CBS4 employee.

“Yeah,” responded the Total Call representative. “It’s verification that you are on some kind of assistance program. It’s to get you through.”

He promptly gave the CBS4 worker a free phone. The Total Call agent said he received $3 for every phone he is able to give away.

Mark Wigfield, Deputy Director of media relations for the FCC, which oversees the Lifeline program, said using someone else’s food stamp card to get a phone is a clear violation of program guidelines
I see. And what's being done beside tsk, tsk? Nada.

But let's back up just a bit.

The real question is whether this program is necessary in the first place. What did people do before mobile phones existed? What do people who don't own mobile phones do today? How many emergency calls are made using these phone—after all, they're supposed to be a "lifeline" aren't they?

I know, I know ... it seems heartless to question a program that was started with good intentions, but that's how all big government programs begin. And then, they grow and become wasteful, or worse, outright fraudulent. The Lifeline program is small potatoes, I admit, but it's representative of the waste and abuse that is endemic in B.I.G. (big intrusive government) and the Lifeline program, for all its good intentions, is a typical example.