African American novelist and activist James Baldwin once said, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” This is the reality for many low-income Americans across the country as they are often forced to do more with less. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exposed this truth, it has also caused an unexpected level of economic instability and uncertainty into the foreseeable future.
Millions of Americans, experiencing job losses and wages due to the ongoing pandemic, are continuing to struggle to put food on the table and get and stay connected to broadband services. Individuals without access to broadband from the safety of their homes during this crisis are unable to make the shift to distance learning, work remotely or access telehealth services. As a result, the pandemic has produced widely disparate outcomes for African Americans and communities of color in health care, economics, education and more.
In 2019, Pew Research Center reported substantial racial and ethnic differences in broadband adoption, with white Americans being more likely than either African Americans or Latinx Americans to report having a broadband connection at home. The FCC’s Lifeline program, the only federal program with the sole mission of bringing affordable communications to low-income Americans, can help connect people in need with necessary voice and broadband services at a time when they need it most. However, the program can only help empower those who know it exists. Lifeline currently has a less than 20% participation rate. This is why we have called for interagency coordination between the United States Department of Agriculture and Federal Communications Commission to increase subscribership in Lifeline among eligible households.
Natural synergies exist between Lifeline and the USDA’s SNAP program. SNAP provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budgets of low-income people and is one of the programs used to determine automatic eligibility for Lifeline. To spread the word about Lifeline, the program is currently dependent on providers to advertise to potentially eligible customers. This was typically done through in-person community outreach in pre-COVID-19 times. But times have changed, and we need to change with them.
There must be close collaboration between the USDA and the FCC to ensure households approved to participate in SNAP are immediately notified about their eligibility for Lifeline. Just like SNAP helps close the hunger gap, Lifeline does the same for the broadband gap by connecting people in need to essential communications and online services — making them better equipped to complete schoolwork, access health services and stay safely connected. Notifying eligible participants about Lifeline is a simple way to provide certainty to millions of people in need during this unprecedented time in our nation’s history and long after the pandemic has ended.
We must also acknowledge that Lifeline, while important, covers only a small portion of the emergent broadband needs of marginalized communities. Our “new normal” requires reliable and consistent internet access. That is why we support the House of Representatives’ passage of the HEROES Act, a comprehensive coronavirus relief package that provides immediate food, healthcare, housing, financial and broadband assistance to ensure access to unlimited calling minutes and data per month at 4G speeds where available. The need has never been greater.
Our democracy, economy and the personal dignity of our fellow Americans are partially dependent on robust and affordable access to broadband. Although the time to ensure connectivity for all Americans was 10 years ago, we must now work together to promote access to programs like Lifeline and enact inclusive policies to root out internet inequality for future generations.