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Free Government Cellphones

Earlier this week, I was driving by Evergreen Terrace [the project just to the north of St. Peter, for those who don’t know.]  There was a little kiosk set up in this abandoned lot near St. John the Baptist parish that said, “Free Cell Phones.”  My scam alarm started going off in my head.  Somebody has to be making money off the people at Evergreen, said the alarm.  Then I forgot about it.

This morning I was about to pull into the executive parking lot–that is the little lot on the north side of the church, which would be in the foreground of this picture.  But the free cell phone kiosk was there, so instead I parked on the street.

To keep this post short…a little investigation showed that it was, in fact, not a scam…at least not in the sense that the people living at Evergreen were getting money taken from them.

Nope.  “Life Wireless”, the company giving the phones, really is giving people a free cellphone along with a plan for a certain number of free minutes per month, if they receive government benefits like Link or SSI.  Life Wireless apparently gets money from the FCC to sign people up and give away these phones.  The USA Today article that I found (surprisingly there weren’t a ton of stories by major news carriers) said that the FCC has had a program to help low income folks with land lines…but it appears that suddenly the budget has gotten bigger for the “free government cellphone program.”

Well, it would be understandable why the Obama administration would want to do something like this now.  The article said: Low income people need cell phones. It looks bad if they fill out job applications but have no phones.  Also elderly people could be endangered by not having one.

True, but most folks I see in the neighborhood already have cell phones.  It seems like it would be fairly easy for an unscrupulous wireless company to sign up all kinds of people who don’t really need cell phones unless the government watches this closely.

As I said, it’s easy to see why the Obama administration would want to do this now; if he has a tough election, it would be important for him to make sure people who depend on government assistance get to the voting booth.  But what’s not as easy to explain is why his opponents let him do this.  Has there been much on this in the news?  I didn’t see anything from conservative news outlets.  Well, there was something on the Drudge report.

Does the president have the power to put more money into a program like this without congress’ approval?  Whether he does or doesn’t, you’d think the republicans would make noise about it.

 All interesting things to think about as I sit in my office as the pastor of a predominantly white, elderly, politically conservative congregation a few feet down the road from a housing project at which most residents are african american and under 25.

Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if in settings like this the Church did what it alone is able to do–what no political power can accomplish?  That is, show the mercy of Christ to people who are suffering, without asking whether the suffering person is Jew, Samaritan, priest or tax collector, clean or unclean?


UPDATE: Eric Cantor (R House Majority Leader) has opposed it; his website has this blurb:

BACKGROUND INFORMATION: SAVES $5 BILLION The Universal Service Fund (USF) imposes a tax on telephone bills in order to ensure that all areas of the nation have accessible telephone service. A portion of the tax supports the “Lifeline/Link-up” program that subsidizes telephone service for qualified low-income customers. In 2008, a private wireless carrier company parlayed this federal subsidy into developing a commercial product offering free cell phones and wireless service to low-income consumers, paid for exclusively by taxpayers. Not surprisingly, participation in the program significantly increased, and spending jumped dramatically from $802 million annually in 2008 to $1.32 billion in 2010. Officials estimate costs will continue growing as this free option becomes available in more states. Meanwhile, the GAO recently released a report warning Congress about the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse, concluding that the program lacks effective internal controls. This proposal would eliminate taxpayer-subsidized free cell phone giveaways and save $500 million annually.”  http://majorityleader.gov/YouCut/P2_W6.htm


This website, though, claims that it is actually the phone companies who pay a fee that goes into a fund to finance the free phones…in other words, it’s not coming out of your pocket.  http://www.factcheck.org/2012/05/congressmans-slippery-cell-phone-claim/


Anyway, this post isn’t really about the political issues at stake, but about how in the church our political identities often are so important to us that we allow them to get in the way of our identity as Christ’s royal priesthood.  Jesus preached the good news to the poor.  Of course we will always have the poor with us, but there is a great difference between being poor and being without hope or full of envy, and beimg poor in earthly things but rich toward God through faith in Christ.

The history of Christendom shows us many times where a renewal of faith in Christ caused the wealthy to be more compassionate toward the needy and the poor to be less oppressed by the demoralization that accompanies poverty, where people begin to engage in patterns of behavior that perpetuate poverty.

May God teach us first to regard ourselves as royal priests and citizens of heaven and secondly as people of this or that political stripe.  Thank God, there will be no political parties in heaven.

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