A segment ran on America Live today examining the Universal Service Fund, a program that is intended to provide universal access to telecommunications, and, among other things, provides cell phones and minutes for free to poor people. The segment managed to be both misleading and offensive.
Guest host Shannon Bream introduced the segment by calling the program "a controversial call" as the on-screen text asked whether "free cell phones" should be a "civil right." After Gary Carter of Assurance Wireless -- a service supported by the Universal Service Fund that provides free cell phones to qualifying low-income people -- explained the program, the other guest, "federal tax practitioner and small businessman" David Selig, responded. He called the program a "shakedown," saying that government is "extorting" companies, and opined that the people receiving the phones "don't deserve something free on the taxpayer's nickel."
It is worth noting that this program has been in existence since 1996, and that the goal of universal service has been a basic tenet of federal policy since the Communications Act of 1934. These supposedly undeserving recipients of free phones through the program must prove that they are low income and be on public assistance, such as Medicaid, food stamps, school lunch programs, or public housing, in order to qualify.
Bream then asked Carter if consumers are required to fund the program, and Carter explained that telecommunications companies put money into the Universal Service Fund, which funds programs such as Assurance Wireless. Bream then asked whether consumers pay into the fund, and Carter explained that some consumers may see a USF charge on their phone bills, which helps the companies defray the costs of paying into the fund. Bream then allowed Selig to respond -- which he did by insulting Carter. Selig asserted that Carter was either "deliberately misleading your viewing audience or he has the business acumen of a wood tick" and declared that "hard-working Americans who have to pay all of their bills themselves" would wind up paying for it.
In fact, while telecommunications companies are required to pay into the fund, they are not required to pass that cost onto consumers. According to the Universal Service Administration Company, appointed by the FCC to run the program, it is entirely up to providers to decide whether to charge consumers any fee for the USF; federal law does not mandate that the charge be itemized on monthly bills.
The segment concluded with Carter laying out the benefits of the program and why it is worthwhile, using the example of a low-income man who was unemployed having access to a phone through the program so that potential employers could contact him as he searched for work. Selig interrupted him: "They're not looking for work. If they were, they would be working."
It may seem unnecessary to point out that the United States is still facing a difficult job market, but Selig's comment seems to require it. With high unemployment, a slow rate of job creation, and a high average length of unemployment among those actively seeking work, not holding a job does not mean that someone is not looking for one.