U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined a bicameral call to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work alongside U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to notify new and current Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid recipients of their eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline Program, which helps low-income families access broadband and telephone services. Reliance on connectivity has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans across the country face a new reality of day to day to life. Broadband and internet services are now crucial for students to continue their education at home, for people who have experienced job loss or reduction in income to search for employment opportunities and access public benefits, and for patients to stay connected with their health care providers via telehealth services.
“As New York families struggle to keep up with monthly expenses due to this public health crisis, it’s even more important that internet and telephone services are affordable and accessible,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “The Lifeline Program grants access to these critical services to low-income families and puts us one step closer to closing the digital divide. We must ensure eligible families are aware of these resources. The FCC must work quickly and coordinate with USDA and HHS to inform those eligible of this valuable lifeline.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, New Yorkers in rural and unserved communities already faced connectivity barriers. Limited access to broadband services disproportionally affects low-income households struggling to succeed in the 21stcentury economy, the FCC’s Lifeline program is focused on closing the digital divide and helping these families obtain essential internet and telephone services.
Full text of the letter can be found here and below.
Dear Chairman Pai:
We write to urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work directly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help ensure the millions of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid, due to job loss or reductions in income, are informed of their eligibility for the FCC’s Lifeline program. The Lifeline program is the primary federal program charged with providing financial assistance to help low-income families obtain broadband and telephone services.
The ongoing pandemic has led to financial hardships for millions of Americans. At least 26 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the past month alone, and states are seeing a surge in applications for SNAP benefits. Medicaid enrollment is also expected to increase significantly as a result of these unprecedented job losses and health coverage. Non-essential businesses and schools have closed across the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus, leaving families to rely on the internet now more than ever to access public benefits, search for employment, learn from home, or access telehealth services. The need is greatest among low-income households forced to stretch limited resources to try to keep up with monthly expenses and put food on the table during the public health crisis. For these vulnerable populations, the FCC’s Lifeline program can help struggling families afford basic internet and telephone connectivity at a time when they need it most – but only if they know about it.
Congress recently passed legislation to provide states additional funding and flexibility to streamline access to SNAP for people adversely effected by the economic impact of the coronavirus. Many of the at least 26 million Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own in the last five weeks may also soon turn to the food assistance programs to feed their families and enroll in Medicaid to access necessary health care. This will likely lead to a significant increase in the number of individuals eligible for the Lifeline program.
Even before the pandemic, only 7 million out of the 38 million people who were eligible for the Lifeline program were enrolled. While we understand that the FCC has traditionally issued guidelines for states and telecommunications providers to advertise the Lifeline program, given the critical role of internet connectivity during the coronavirus pandemic, we urge the FCC to coordinate directly with USDA and HHS as well as states and stakeholders to help ensure people in need are informed about their eligibility for the Lifeline program. We also respectfully request responses to the following questions:
- What is the FCC currently doing to work with the USDA and HHS to help ensure that people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program are aware that they can receive subsidized communications services?
- What data has the FCC collected on the number of people in the U.S. who are newly eligible for the Lifeline program since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and how many of those newly eligible have enrolled in the program?
- Please detail the additional resources and authorities the FCC needs to ensure qualifying people in the U.S. know that they are eligible for the Lifeline program.
Thank you for prompt attention to this matter. We look forward to your response.