Commentary
By Cheryl A. Leanza 10-23-2018

Last month, social justice advocates gathered outside of the Federal Communications Commission to speak out. Aja Taylor with Bread for the City — a direct service organization in Washington, D.C. — stopped us in our tracks with this question: “Can you imagine being on the wait list for subsidized housing for eight years, but miss your opportunity because when your name finally comes up, no one can reach you?”

It is stories like these that reinforce my belief in the fundamental connection between communications justice and social justice. Communication is a human right —a tool that connects us to our communities, helps to disclose injustice, and facilitate innumerable aspects of modern life.

Many of us could not conceive of even 4 or 5 hours without access to a mobile phone or the internet. Nevertheless, low-income people and people of color are the least likely to have access to a reliable internet connection.

The support structures that assist low-income families cannot work unless those in need have functional means of communication. Doctors monitoring children with fragile health, employers who can offer an extra shift to a struggling worker, nutrition support programs like SNAP which must confirm income eligibility — all these must be able to communicate with a low-income person, often within limited timeframes. Our collective and individual economic well-being is dependent on communications tools.

New data shows the dramatic extent to which people must go into debt to maintain that vital connection. A recent report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that more than 1 in 5 consumers had telecommunications-related collections on their consumer report in the past five years. Communications-related debt accounts for more than 1/5 of all debt collection revenue and is the third-largest kind of debt, after medical debt and credit card debt.

Not only is this data alarming, but like many other safety nets, the federal government's only program to support affordable communications is under attack. The federal Lifeline program provides a financial subsidy to eligible low‐income people to help them afford telephone and broadband internet service. In many cases this program can provide a no-cost mobile phone provided by the private sector via products such as SafeLink, Assurance Wireless, and Access Wireless.

But the current Chair of the Federal Communications Commission is proposing to cut off almost 70 percent of the households that use this program by cutting off the companies with the most popular and affordable Lifeline products. Not only that, but he is proposing to cut off support for voice service outside of rural areas and impose ineffective and administratively complex budget caps and mandatory co-pays which will particularly harm thehe most vulnerable on the program, including seniors and people with disabilities. 

Lifeline is a small program with a huge impact. The dangerous proposals appear to have been delayed by widespread push-back so far, but strong voices will be needed to persuade the FCC to eliminate these proposals for good. The number of groups supporting Lifeline and the resources to explain the problem are tremendous and we need others to make their voices heard.

A strong moral response now could fend off these cruel proposals. Individuals can sign a petition or make a call . And everyone can help #SaveLifeline on social media. If your congregation is moved to help, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance is a resource to find a local organization in your community.

The voices of people of faith and moral conscious can make a difference to this program and to the connective tools that will bring economic security to millions of people in the United States. We need to ensure that we do not become a society divided between the “information rich” and “information poor,” leaving struggling people without the tools to succeed in modern society.

Cheryl A. Leanza serves as policy advisor to the United Church of Christ’s historic media advocacy ministry, UCC OC Inc., www.uccmediajustice.org, and on the UCC’s behalf serves as the Co-Chair of the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights Media & Telecommunications Task Force.

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