Broadcasting Hate: How Trump Used the FCC to Punish the Poor [OP-ED]

By Erin Shields, Lucia Martinez Apr 11, 2018

Less than a month into the presidency of Donald Trump, the White House-sanctioned war on the poor had officially begun.

In early February 2017, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Ajit Pai, without warning or provocation, issued an order that made it harder for people with low incomes to access the internet. The order ripped at the heart of the Lifeline program—an initiative designed to provide a federal subsidy to help the poor afford internet access.

Since its inception in 1985, Lifeline is one of those rare federal government programs that has received bipartisan support. Created during the Reagan administration to support landline phone access, the program was codified by the Gingrich/Dole Congress in 1996, then expanded under President George W. Bush to include wireless service, and then modernized during the Obama administration to explicitly allow broadband options. Now, after decades of work, the Lifeline program will be all but destroyed by the Trump administration. 

Limiting participation in the Lifeline program was just the first shot fired in this unjust theater of battle where the wounds and causalities run deep among single mothers, seniors, people with disabilities, people of color and children. Since then, this racist, elitist and classist administration has used the FCC to invigorate a culture of economic exploitation to wage war against the poor.

Among the other threats to vulnerable populations, the Trump FCC’s Lifeline program changes include establishing a new, arbitrary cap on the program, which would deny service to many eligible families and place a lifetime benefits limit that would cut off service for anyone whom the FCC decides has been in the program too long.

The FCC has excelled at doing Trump’s bidding of ensuring our government operates on behalf of the wealthy. In December 2017, Chairman Pai followed through with his promise to end net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. Similar to his callous ruling on Lifeline, Pai’s mission to end net neutrality would effectively weaken protections for millions of under resourced people by turning the internet over to big corporations like Verizon—Pai’s former employer—and in the process create a new normal where the internet works best for those who can afford it. In other words, he’s making faceless corporations with questionable legacies on social and racial justice the gatekeepers of what can and can’t be assessed over the web. 

Even Chairman Pai’s lack of action has dire consequences for low-income populations. When the FCC was under Democratic control, the agency moved to address the crippling costs people face when they talk to loved ones who are incarcerated. The Obama-era FCC issued a ruling that capped the rates charged for intrastate phone calls made by people from prison and in response, a handful of private companies filed a lawsuit. In June 2017, despite growing evidence that the rate of recidivism is deeply connected to the ability of people within prison to stay connected with their families, a federal court struck down the FCC’s ruling, claiming the agency had overstepped its authority. With his own agency at the center of a fight that fellow FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn calls the worst “regulatory injustice” she’s seen in her career, Pai instructed the FCC to drop its defense against the lawsuit. Just as he has shown with Lifeline and net neutrality, Pai will always place the needs of corporate interests ahead of those of the less fortunate.

President Trump and his FCC have sunk so low as to use false narratives to push a dangerous agenda against people of color, poor people, Dreamers, LGBTQ people, women and many more. The protections these groups deserve have been used by this president as a smokescreen so he fulfills his true oath: to siphon billions of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of the super wealthy, his own family included. When Trump’s government takes away a modest monthly Lifeline subsidy of $9.25 but has no trouble rewarding the richest one percent with billions of dollars in tax cuts, these are the ultimate signs of hypocrisy and betrayal.

The FCC is not the only agency within the Trump administration executing a war on the poor. In December 2017, Trump got his long-desired tax cut which ignored the needs of lower and middle-class people and instead bestowed billions on wealthy individuals and corporations. The federal government has also proposed cuts to nearly every social program imaginable including eviscerating the budgets of Medicaid, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Even Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions has gotten into the game by reviving debtors prisons, which were scrapped by the Obama administration, and once again paving the way for people too poor to pay their fines to be incarcerated.

We are living with a government that no longer even attempts to pretend that its working on behalf of the people. The government Donald Trump presides over has been transformed into a business, and a bankrupt business at that—which is only fitting since it bares the Trump name.

Erin Shields is the national field organizer for internet rights at the Center for Media Justice.

Lucia Martinez is a digital campaigner and co-leads the race equity working group at Free Press.