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The New Rome: The Lifeline cell phone

Getty Images

Getty Images

“The American Republic will endure,
until politicians realize they can bribe the
people with their own money,”
(Alexis de Tocqueville 1805-1859)

In the heyday of the Roman Empire, the Emperors kept their place at the top by giving the people of the capital city what they wanted most:gladiatorial extravaganzas, circuses and cheap food. Today, the leaders of the ‘New Romes‘ use similar methods. The modern-day ‘emperors’ are democratically elected so the pressure to provide for the masses is even more pressing. Programs intended to help are expanded beyond their original scope to become the modern-day equivalents of bread and circuses and attempts to rein them in are met with resistance and granted exceptions.

Case in point: the Lifeline Program for Low-Income Consumers.

Though known today as “Obama Phones”, the program was started in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan and applied to land lines for the elderly at the time. It was expanding in 2005 under President George W. Bush to include cell phones. The Lifeline program is available to eligible low-income consumers in every state, territory, commonwealth, and on Tribal lands. Consumers with proper proof of eligibility(income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or participating in a qualifying state, federal, or Tribal assistance program) are provided with a free cell phone paid for by their fellow Americans through the Universal Service Fund(hint: look at your land line or cell phone bill). The purpose of the phones is to give low-income families access to emergency services, jobs, healthcare, and social services.

The problem with the program is that it is plagued with waste, fraud and abuse. Dead people are receiving free cells phones in the mail, eligible and ineligible individuals are obtaining more than one phone, and electronic kiosks have been stationed in convenience stores to spread the word about this ‘free’ opportunity. While the FCC put stricter rules on re-certification of individuals in the program in January 2012. These new rules cut the numbers of participants in the program from 16 million in the last quarter of 2012 to 13 million in June of this year.

The League of Latin American Citizens(LULAC) in a teleconference August 28th argued that the FCC enforcing their stricter rules and Republicans in Congress seeking to end the program will keep Latino and low-income families from being able to compete in a world run by wireless devices. They seem to feel that the government should be working to increase Latino family participation in the program(begging the question: what keeps LULAC from doing the promotion on its own dime). The program in 2012 spent $2.2 billion subsidizing or providing free cellphones. The group cited a 2011 study which showed the economic gain from the program(the average increase in income per participant was $259 a year—roughly $3.7 billion as an aggregate).

What was not mentioned by LULAC in its teleconference is that while the stricter rules set out by the FCC have put a dent in the fraud, several states and participating companies have received long-term waivers from the re-certification program requirements for a variety of reasons.
So, we still have a well-meaning program which has become a modern-day version of the ‘bread and circuses’ of old. Perhaps we should listen to the words of Alexis de Tocqueville quoted at the beginning of this article. Perhaps the leadership at the LULAC national headquarters should hear them and stop shouting about racism and classism.


About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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