Although landline telephones have dwindled in the age of digital technology, a small portion of the population still relies on them for access to emergency services and vital resources. But on Aug. 31, a program that allowed low-income households in Washington to receive home phone service for $8 a month, plus tax, ended due to state budget cuts.
More than 40,000 people were enrolled in the Washington Telephone Assistance Program (WTAP). Norah West, spokesperson for the Department of Social and Health Services, said they have been directed to the federal Lifeline program, which provides two options: a discount on landline service or a free cellphone.
But some service providers and wtap advocates say for a certain portion of the population, Lifeline won’t fill the gap.
Those who want to retain their landline will likely see higher bills. Lifeline offers a $9.25 discount off packages that typically start at $30 with basics such as voice mail. New landlines will mean paying start-up fees that were once subsidized by WTAP by 50 percent, said Joy Scott, supportive services manager for Solid Ground.
Amy Crewdson, staff attorney for Columbia Legal Services, which advocated to keep WTAP intact, said she is concerned a cellphone may not be a realistic alternative for some seniors, disabled individuals and those in rural areas where coverage isn’t available — a large segment of those on WTAP. This year, 19,550 of WTAP users were 65 or older.
“The idea that a cellphone might take the place of your landline, even if you can get a cell for free, won’t be true for some percentage of those who were on WTAP,” Crewdson said.
Those who do opt for a cellphone receive 250 free minutes per month. That’s not a lot for someone looking for employment or housing, contacting medical providers, social service support, schools or listening to voice mails.
Advocates are particularly concerned about the Community Voice Mail program (CVM), which lost its state funding alongside WTAP. Largely serving homeless individuals, it allows users to set up a voice mail linked to a regular 10-digit number, so they can be reached and retrieve messages even without an address or phone. The program also provides broadcast messaging on upcoming job fairs, trainings, housing and more. Trisha Matthieu, program manager for Springwire of
Feeding America, cvm’s national host, said it currently has about 1,500 Washington users with more than 830 enrolling this year.
The future of CVM is unclear. Seven organizers throughout the state help provide service in communities, and though some have alternate funding sources, Matthieu said that most will not be able to continue without state funding. Feeding America is funding the program until the end of 2015, but it has not announced if it will continue past December.
Since most telephone assistance programs only allow one phone per household, CVM an important resource for multiple adults and families at one address, as well as for homeless individuals who struggle with cellphones and maintaining service.
“There are a lot of people who have long depended on the Community Voice Mail to stay in touch with medical professionals, case managers, family, etc., and this would be an unfortunate loss for that community,” said Mercedes Elizalde, volunteer programs coordinator for the Low Income Housing Institute.