Op-EdOpinion

SMITH: We Need Lifeline Now More Than Ever

As we look at the issues facing us today in terms of media and telecommunications policy, it’s important that we examine the needs of society and make decisions based on the public good, not the corporate demand. When we look at things that way, it becomes clear that communications issues are civil rights issues.

Voice and broadband services are civil rights issue. They are in fact, the top civil rights issue of the 21st century, precisely because these technologies are being positioned as a primary driver of economic opportunity and as a catalyst for social change.

The Federal Communications Commission is now considering changes to the Lifeline program which will include placing a cap on the Universal Service Fund’s low-income support services that will ultimately prevent those who qualify from receiving access to the benefit of having telephone and broadband service at home.

The world now lives and thrives online and, once again, poor African-American and Hispanic households are being left behind. The Digital Divide continues to be real.

Everyday, more and more basic functions are moving online — business, education, medical — even social services. The threat of falling through the cracks — being left behind, outside the reaches of even the “safety net” — is as real as it’s ever been.

The digital “haves” are first-class digital citizens with a passport to explore all that the internet has to offer, while the digital “have-nots” are second-class citizens trapped in poverty without access to the opportunities offered in the digital economy. As Rainbow PUSH Coalition founder and President Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. states, “No poor family in America should ever have to make the decision as to whether they should put food on the table or stay connected via telephone and broadband service.”

The situation is serious for African-American and Hispanic seniors and adults, but even more so for our children. If we don’t deal with this divide, we run the risk of relegating a whole generation of young people to the fringe of society.

According to Pew Research Center, 13 percent of Hispanics and 12 percent of Blacks are smartphone dependent, meaning, they do not have a broadband connection at home and have few options for going online other than their cellphone. In comparison, only 4 percent of White smartphone owners rely on their cellphone for online access.

Census Bureau data shows that African-American and Hispanic children use the internet at school much more regularly than other children, probably because they donʼt have broadband at home.

There is already an education gap in America. Research shows that African-American and Hispanic students lag two to three years behind White students of the same age, and only 55 percent of Latino students, 51 percent of African-American students and half of Native American students earn a high school diploma, compared to over 75 percent of White and Asian students at all income levels.

Access to broadband at home and school is not the magic bullet that will solve this problem; however, it is a major step in the right direction. The modernized Lifeline program enables millions in our communities the opportunity to help themselves by connecting to jobs, employers, online education, and plethora of services that can dramatically improve and enrich their lives. However, recent actions by the leadership at the FCC have called into question the future of this essential program. As FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has stated, “It will harm those less fortunate, those who need to dial 911, stay in touch with their children’s educators, keep a job and stay healthy. The day we head down such a path is a sad one day.”

Easy access to voice and broadband service creates employment and financial opportunities that would not be there but for the access that Lifeline provides to the poor in America. Although this program does not guarantee economic success, it does create opportunity for a greater economic freedom. Lifeline is needed more now than ever. If you agree, contact our FCC commissioners and urge them not to limit access to Lifeline with unnecessary caps to the program.

Smith is executive director of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s Public Policy Institute and Media/Telecom Project.

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