The Case for Lifeline Coverage in Rural Areas —
The great post-war migration from America’s cities to the suburbs has shifted. More and more Americans are returning to the urban areas to gentrify once-gilded neighborhoods. And they’re not only migrating from suburbs. The exodus has been most profound in rural areas where economic opportunities have dwindled. Today, our rural communities are in great need of help, and the situation is dire.
As The Wall Street Journal reflected in mid-2017: “Rural America is the new inner city.”1 The statement was based on compelling data collected after the year 2000, and shows the number of skilled workers in rural America is on the decline. Simultaneously, people living in these areas rely more heavily on federal disability insurance. We’re also seeing a bump in divorce rates in rural communities.
Agricultural and manufacturing jobs that once supported tens of thousands of families have disappeared, and don’t appear to be returning anytime soon, if at all. As a result, millions of Americans in Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas — among other states — struggle to survive in relative obscurity.
By contrast, urban poverty is well-documented, and as a result, policies and programs to assist poor Americans are most visible in large metropolitan areas. For example, we incentivize developers to build affordable housing, and we invest in job training and other antipoverty initiatives. These programs are slowly making progress and helping low-income residents of big cities.
Meanwhile, though, the rural poor see few signs of help. From lacking healthcare resources, to limited access to transportation, to shrinking job prospects, communities outside metropolitan areas are growing more and more isolated and disconnected.
Poor Connectivity: One More Symptom
Like many other measures of prosperity, rural communities lack technological connectedness compared to their urban counterparts. In cities, people live closer together, so investing in telecommunications infrastructure, including Internet access, costs much less than in rural America. Indeed, in less densely populated communities, wireless coverage remains spotty, and there are fewer companies competing for customers. To fix the problem, we need to invest in infrastructure and adopt short-term solutions, including bringing in mega-COWs (cells on wheels).
In addition, the Federal Communications Commission can more rapidly expand the Lifeline Program, a tax-supported program that delivers voice and data to low-income Americans. Through the Lifeline Program, eligible participants receive a smartphone and a limited number of airtime minutes and data usage, free of charge.
The program began during the Reagan administration largely to help rural Americans by providing landline phones and service infrastructure to people who couldn’t afford the cost. Decades later, after Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration expanded and transitioned the program to cellular service, again recognizing the importance of telecommunications to keep people connected and safe.
Unfortunately, like so many other programs aimed at helping America’s neediest, those in rural America have been left out. While the number of people eligible for the Lifeline Program — as measured by indicators of poverty — has grown in these parts of the country, participation in the Lifeline Program has not.
Good News for Arkansas and Hawaii
The FCC recently granted a license to Q Link Wireless to offer Lifeline phones and service to residents of Arkansas. The license represented the first expansion of the Lifeline Program to a new geographic area for any company in more than 5 years.
For Arkansas, a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, the program expansion couldn’t come soon enough. In fact, only 3 states in the US have a larger number of people living below the poverty line. Now tens of thousands of Arkansans will have more options and more access to free cellular phone service and connectivity.
In addition, in early December 2017, the FCC granted Q Link another new license to begin offering Lifeline service to residents of Hawaii. So, perhaps this is a turning point for the Lifeline Program, an essential ingredient for safety, peace-of-mind, and health, for our most vulnerable communities: rural America.
1. Adamy, Janet, and Paul Overberg. “Rural America Is the New ‘Inner City.’” The Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, www.wsj.com/articles/rural-america-is-the-new-inner-city-1495817008.