The oil spill off the Louisiana coast was the worst single-incident environmental disaster in this country's history. Equally disastrous has been its impact on the health, economy and livelihoods of communities living adjacent to the Gulf Coast. The battered Louisiana economy, still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and struggling to recover from the nationwide economic recession, did not need more bad news.
In the wake of the oil spill, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services reported that many families reached out for the first time for help putting food on the table. Some coastal parishes have reported double-digit increases in the number of people applying for food stamps, while food assistance centers have reported serving 25 percent more people.
Most Americans know that when disaster strikes--whether it is man-made (the Gulf oil spill), natural (Hurricane Katrina) or personal (a job layoff)--they can seek help putting food on the table from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Nationwide, 15.2 million families used the program in 2009, about a 20 percent increase from the prior two years.
However, few Americans know that if they qualify for food assistance, they also qualify for free or discounted phone service through the "Lifeline" program. Less than one-third of the nation's eligible population takes advantage of the Lifeline program. A case in point: Louisiana's Gulf coast, where food assistance applications increased considerably in recent months, has not experienced a corresponding increase in the number of applications for Lifeline phone service. Lifeline participation rates in Louisiana and nationwide are well below those of other federal programs that identify families in need and deliver assistance.
The Lifeline program was created by the Federal Communications Commission more than 20 years ago. Traditionally, Lifeline was only used to assist with landline costs, but just recently was expanded to include ceil phones. With the inclusion of cell phones, it is easier for lower-income Americans to take advantage of this free telephone service. Even more attractive for many lower-income consumers is a pre-paid cell phone offered through Lifeline service because these phones come at no cost and do not require long-term contracts, a permanent home address where bills are mailed, or a credit checks that may be impossible to pass.
While those who can afford it use cell phones for...