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Last week during Congress’s “vote-a-rama” over amendments to the continuing budget resolution, the Senate voted, mostly along party lines, to reject an amendment that would eliminate a government subsidy to provide cell phone service to low income consumers. The program in question is called Lifeline, and it was established in 1985 as a way to give telephone access to those that could otherwise not afford it for use in emergency situations, and in 2005, it was extended to cover cell phones as well.
This sounds a noble goal, but there are several problems with the reasoning behind why such measures should be considered wise or necessary. To begin with, one may already dial 911 from a cell phone free of charge, with or without a service plan. This substantially harms the case that Lifeline is necessary to provide emergency services to the poor. Additionally, Lifeline does not pay for the phones themselves, but only the service. Many cell phone companies have already found ways to voluntarily offer free phones to low income individuals, so it is unclear how Lifeline is useful in this area either.
In reality, the Lifeline program is merely another form of entitlement. People already depend on the government to provide for them when they are sick, old or unemployed. Now they can rest assured that the government will be there for them when they are feeling chatty.
Lifeline is not a hugely expensive program, at least relatively speaking, costing only $1.6 billion for 2011. The part of the program that deals with cell phones, the one Congress proposed to cut, is presumably only a fraction of that number. Yet there are two reasons why we should care about this issue and others like it.
First, it represents the continuing expansion of the entitlement mentality that grips the country more tightly with each passing year. By engendering dependency, those in power ensure that the status quo is not disturbed. We have seen this already with the way the sequestration cuts have played out. Although the cuts were incredibly minor, they can be organized in such a way as to impact the services that voters depend on, scaring them away from further cuts in the future. The more services the government provides, the more credible its threats against the public when faced with the possibility of spending reduction.
Secondly, if Congress cannot agree to cut even a small program such as this, how can we possibly expect to deal seriously with the major entitlement reforms necessary to rein in the ballooning national debt? If we are so bitterly divided over something as trifling as cell phones, how can we hope to reform Medicare or Social Security?
We do not need any more entitlements in this country. Mobile communication is not a fundamental human right. If government is going to pay for people’s cell phones, it might as well pay for their televisions, their iPads and their e-readers. This endless push for government to guarantee all of life’s conveniences is damaging to our society and in the long run can only end in economic and cultural ruin.