The Lifeline program was established in 1985 under the premise that telephone service is integral to American life, and that it shouldn't be denied to very low-income Americans.
Now that everything available by phone — and so much more that isn't — is now accessible by computer, it makes sense for the federal government to expand the program to include subsidies for broadband Internet access.
But while the new proposal from the Federal Communications Commission is welcome news, it would do relatively little to remove the significant barriers to Internet access. To make sure that students from poor families do not continue to fall behind, more has to be done.
Overall, nearly 75 percent of U.S. households have some sort of Internet connection. But that number changes greatly when considering household income.
While nearly 95 percent of households with $150,000 or more in annual income have home Internet access, less than 50 percent of households with less than $25,000 in income do.
In fact, low-income households with children are four times more likely to lack a high-speed Internet connection than middle- or high-income families, a divide that gets deeper for poor black and Hispanic households.
When more and more school work requires tools and resources only available online, that's a problem. For many low-income students, finishing daily assignments means piggybacking on the school's Internet connection even at night, using the free Wi-Fi available at fast-food restaurants and public libraries, or not completing it at all. That's a disservice to students who are supposed to be preparing for a high-tech, global economy, and who are already facing a tougher road than their more well-off peers.
In recognition of this growing "digital divide," the FCC released its plan March 8 and will vote on it soon. If approved, it would allow for the Lifeline program's $9.25-per-month subsidy to be used to purchase fixed, wired broadband Internet as well as mobile data plans.
Considering the cost of an Internet plan is four or five times that amount, and devices more expensive, the subsidy is not a lot of help to a family already spending most of its income just on food, housing and transportation.
The FCC likely knows this, but is unable to seek a higher benefit. Conservatives have derided the Lifeline program since the poorly handled inclusion of mobile phones beginning in 2008, when it became the subject of significant abuse.
The new proposal addresses that criticism by establishing a third-party vetting procedure for eligibility as well as a database of users so that only qualified households are given the subsidy, and that each eligible household only gets one subsidy.
That will make the program more efficient, but not necessarily more effective. The modest subsidy will be a relief for some families struggling to pay for an Internet connection, but many more will remain without one, giving rise to more inequality in an economy already defined by it.
The answer may not be a higher subsidy, but the problem certainly needs more attention. The cost of providing a child with the skills necessary to find a place in the modern workforce is increasing, and for the sake of their lives and the health of the U.S. economy, we've got to keep up.
~ The Kennebec Journal (Maine)