763,000 households in Pennsylvania are about to lose internet aid unless Congress acts - TAI News
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President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House, June 26, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Phyllis Jackson calls her computer her best friend — the 79-year-old retiree from Monroeville chuckles as she says it, but it’s not entirely tongue-in-cheek. 

“With seniors being isolated a lot, the computer to me opens up the door,” Jackson told the Pennsylvania Independent. “Even when I turn on my computer, even if I’m here by myself, when I turn on YouTube or I hear things on the computer, it makes me feel like just sort of a person. I’m hearing a voice and all, and it takes away the feeling of being lonely.”

It’s not hyperbole to say having the internet at home has been a lifesaver for seniors like herself, said Jackson, who noted it gives her a connection to others in a world where many of her friends have died, she lives alone, and she can’t afford a car to visit people. With the internet, she can email her daughter, who lives in the Baltimore area, and watch her favorite animal videos and news programs on YouTube.

However, paying for that internet connection isn’t easy, especially for seniors who are living on fixed incomes and are concerned about their medication, food and emergency health care bills, Jackson explained. 

Jackson, who worked for a long list of government agencies in Washington, D.C., before retiring and returning to her hometown of Monroeville in 2009 due to the rising cost of living in the nation’s capital, has been able to afford a home internet plan since the beginning of 2022. At that time, she enrolled in a federal program that has provided millions of low-income households with a discount on internet bills. However, Congress hasn’t approved additional funding needed to keep the Affordable Connectivity Program going, and it’s slated to expire at the end of May, leaving Jackson and millions of other households without the assistance they’ve come to rely on.

The Affordable Connectivity Program launched at the end of 2021 with $14.2 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which President Joe Biden signed in November 2021. The program provided up to $30 each month to help low-income families with their internet bills, and families on tribal lands could receive up to $75 each month.

The initiative has been a popular one. In February, when the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the program, froze enrollment, there were about 23 million households enrolled in the program nationwide, including some 763,000 in Pennsylvania. Both Democratic and Republican voters like the initiative: A think tank last year released a poll that found 79% of voters supported continuing the program, breaking down to 62% of Republicans, 78% of Independents, and 96% of Democrats.

That bipartisan support for a program that benefits older Americans and families in rural areas, among others, extends to elected officials. Twenty-six Republican and Democratic governors signed a letter late last year in support of the program, and federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been vocal about wanting it to continue.

Still, far more Democratic lawmakers than Republican ones have supported legislation in the Senate and the House to extend the program. Twenty-seven Democratic senators and three Republican senators are co-sponsoring the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024. Meanwhile, 206 Democrats and 24 Republicans are co-sponsoring the House version of that legislation. Neither bill has been voted on.

All nine of Pennsylvania’s Democratic House members are co-sponsoring the House bill. One of Pennsylvania’s eight Republicans in the House, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, is a co-sponsor. Both of Pennsylvania’s Democratic senators, Bob Casey and John Fetterman, are co-sponsoring the Senate legislation to extend the program. Additionally, at the end of April, Fetterman introduced legislation of his own on April 30 to make the program permanent.

“Broadband internet is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity, but many families simply cannot afford it,” Fetterman said in a prepared statement. “The ACP has been incredibly successful in ensuring that families across Pennsylvania and the country have internet access. It’s simple: when a program works, keep it.”

If the program is benefiting constituents in both conservative and liberal areas and there’s significant support among Democratic, Republican and independent voters for continuing it, why can’t Congress at least vote on legislation to extend it? 

That comes down, at least in part, to politics, Biden and Democratic lawmakers said: Some Republicans don’t want the Biden administration, a champion of the Affordable Connectivity Program and expanding internet access in general, to receive credit for the benefits during a presidential election year. 

“On October 25, 2023, President Biden sent Congress a supplemental request for $6 billion to extend funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program,” a May 1 statement from the White House said. “Despite that request, Republicans in Congress have failed to act. Without action from Republicans in Congress, this program will sunset at the end of May and tens of millions of Americans may no longer be able to afford high-speed internet service.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat from New Mexico who chairs the Communications, Media and Broadband Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, told Politico last fall that ongoing drama and infighting among House Republicans, including possible government shutdowns and questions over who would be House speaker, has also held up on action on the program.

“The situation in the House is affecting everything,” Lujan told Politico. “The dysfunction and the civil war that we’re seeing play out is holding everything up.”

Lawmakers’ failure to act has left program enrollees to question whether they’ll be able to afford their internet bills, and what that will mean for their health and their children’s schooling. 

Without the Affordable Connectivity Program, 95% of enrollees said they’d have trouble affording their internet bills; 81% of parent enrollees said they’d worry their children would fall behind in school; and 75% said they fear losing access to telehealth services.

Jackson said there’s no way she can live without the internet again; she will have to figure out a way to pay for it, though she knows that could mean cutting back on food or even medication. After a lifetime of working for various government agencies, most recently the Environmental Protection Agency, to be worried about affording basic needs is hurtful and stressful, Jackson said. 

An additional $30 for the internet is a lot to have to cover each month, Jackson explained, especially when she’s facing an increase in rent and additional prescription costs. But not having the internet means returning to a world of isolation, and that’s not a place anyone should have to be, she said. 

“I’m just going to have to cut back,” Jackson said, explaining how she’s going to pay for the internet without the federal program. “The main thing I try to cut back on — I have to cut back on the food, and I have to cut back on my heating bill.”

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.