A Trump Proposal Could Make Selfies Dangerous for Disabled People

Posting a selfie in a cute bikini on a beach in Hawaii to Instagram or sharing protest pics on Twitter shouldn’t be grounds for being denied disability benefits, but if an expansion of social media surveillance at the Social Security Administration goes through, that’s exactly what could happen.

An Instagram story from a low-pain day or a Facebook post with an old photo might be used against an applicant for disability benefits, a change from the status quo where the agency only looks at social media in cases of suspected fraud. Thanks to a New York Times story suggesting a tiny line item in the agency’s 2019 fiscal year budget overview will turn into a real policy, the disability community is very worried.

All this for an agency with a “fraud incidence rate that is a fraction of one percent.”

The proposed expansion of social media monitoring for the nearly 20 million Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income recipients would have several negative effects, among them that disability activists who organize and build community online may be hesitant to do so. It will also feed directly into myths about Social Security fraud that have been wildly overstated in media coverage, such as a 2017 Washington Post series or a 2013 NPR feature package that made it seem as though “undeserving” people were lining up for disability benefits. (The average monthly benefits are under $1,300; being on disability is hardly a profitable endeavor.)

Proposals like this one underscore the common belief that everyone applying for disability is fake until proven otherwise. “I hate the assumption that everyone’s lying just because they need help,” said Rachel Graves, a member of the chronic illness community who receives disability and private insurance coverage, and who is already very cautious about her online presence. Graves is well aware that social media is used to police disabled people online by the government and insurance companies, as well as the general public, who are all seeking out disabled people who don’t “look sick.”

In response to the news, Mila Johns, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, deleted her Facebook account and plans to scale back on Twitter: “It seemed like too big of a risk to take by continuing to engage in social media. Because we don’t know how it’s going to be used.” Johns relies on communities found through sites like Facebook and Twitter to connect with people who share her diagnosis. “[Social media is] a lifeline for so many people,” she said, but she’s preparing an application for disability benefits, and she’s worried about what examiners might find, and judge.

The internet is valuable for outreach and advocacy, but also activism. Online organizers have used social media to fight attacks on the Affordable Care Act, organize in defense of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and engage in solidarity actions with other marginalized communities. Disabled advocates such as Imani Barbarin, creator of hashtags such as #AbledsAreWeird and #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow, and Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project and one of the co-partners of #CripTheVote, rely on social media for their work.

Images of disabled protesters went viral in 2017 during the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Those same protesters now get to worry about whether those pictures will be used against them to deny or revoke disability benefits; if you’re well enough to occupy the halls of Congress, surely you’re not “really disabled.”

The agency already has an entire trained investigative division that focuses on preventing fraud before it even happens, in addition to following up on complaints about current beneficiaries. It also uses predictive analytics software to flag suspicious activity among both applicants for and current recipients of disability benefits. (Like other uses of predictive algorithms, this has dangerous implications, requiring applicants and recipients to submit to the surveillance state’s collection and use of their data. Algorithmic bias is also a significant concern.)

Now, in addition, the new proposal would allow thousands of front-line “disability adjudicators” all across the country to conduct their own fraud investigations using social media data. These are the staff charged with determining whether a claimant meets the agency’s stringent criteria for disability benefits.

It seemed like too big of a risk to take by continuing to engage in social media.
– Mila Johns

On average, they are not very accurate.

In 2016, disability adjudicators approved 33 percent of initial disability applications and denied the other 67 percent. Claimants whose applications are denied have the right to appeal and have their case heard by an administrative law judge. After waiting one to two years to have their appeals decided, 46 percent of claimants are ultimately found to be disabled by Social Security.

In other words, nearly half of the people whom disability adjudicators rule as not disabled are actually determined to be disabled when they have their day before a judge.

In this climate, it’s easy to understand why disabled people might be afraid, and the consequences of curtailing social media engagement can be immediate and painful. “It is so isolating being really sick, especially when you have something unusual enough that you don’t know anyone else who has it. To find someone like you can make you feel less lonely,” said Graves.

The proposal also aligns with a long history of claiming that programs like SSDI and SSI are rife with “fraud.” For those concerned about fraudulent applications, the Social Security Administration maintains a fraud hotline and encourages not only workers, but also law enforcement and members of the general public, to report suspected disability fraud, in a “see something, say something” approach that encourages people to inform on each other.

This is the dangerous crux of the proposal: It will have a silencing effect on disability advocates at a time when they have won several high-profile victories with the assistance of online organizing, such as helping to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Expanding the use of social media in disability determinations could become punitive in nature, with poorly-trained adjudicators dealing with large caseloads making snap judgments about applicants, particularly those with outspoken political leanings. Disability activists who don’t “look disabled” or have variable experiences of disability, such as part-time wheelchair users, could pay a high price for leading public lives.

The proposal can be operationalized administratively, without Congressional action, though Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Casey (D-PA) have expressed concerns about it. But it will make the internet less safe — especially for people like Johns who are primarily or entirely homebound and use it as a vital tool for participating in society. And it will make organizing harder for a fractured community that’s currently relying on the internet to help with the fight against dangerous, disablist policy proposals on the state and federal level.



Food Banks Warn They Will Not Be Able to Meet Demand If Food Stamp Cuts Take Effect

On the heels of the thirty-two-day government shutdown, a proposed administrative rule change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) once again threatens food access for people who rely on the program for basic needs — this time for an estimated 755,000 people.

For households that qualify for SNAP, February, the shortest month of the year, was a long one. During government shutdown, 40 million Americans who participate in the program experienced as many as 60 days between the issuance of their February and March SNAP benefits. The shortages in household budgets meant that food banks across the country were inundated.

“355 households on February 19,” says Kelli Hess, operations director for the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center in Missoula, Montana. Hess notes that historically, February is a slower month for the pantry — families are receiving tax returns, and the short month means SNAP benefits don’t have to stretch as far. Prior to February 19, the local food pantry’s busiest day had served 240 families. “It was absolutely fallout from the shutdown. People can’t survive without paychecks. And they can’t survive without SNAP. Which is why this proposed rule change is so scary.”

The rule change, proposed by the Trump administration, would limit states’ ability to waive work requirements during periods of high unemployment. Similar cuts to the program were rejected by the bipartisan Farm Bill passed by Congress in December 2018.

The administrative rule change would kick Miriam Bayer, a local academic, off SNAP. She is composed and deliberate in her statements as she explains the situation, sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Missoula.

She holds a master’s degree in biology from the University of Montana. During her undergraduate work at Washington Lee, which she attended on a full scholarship, she began her research on salamanders — work that earned her a first author publication before graduation. She spent a year researching in Brazil and was awarded a prestigious PhD candidacy at the University of Montana, a placement that allowed her to continue her education debt-free. However, a debilitating migraine condition forced her to pivot from the PhD candidacy to the master’s program. It also resulted in significant debt.

“Because of my medical condition, it took me longer to graduate, and I had a lot of medical bills. I would max out on my out-of-pocket every year seeking treatment. Between neurology, I was in a chronic pain program, physical therapy. That combined with the cut in income from switching from my PhD to master’s, I signed up for SNAP. I don’t remember when I started going to the food bank. And I took out student loans.” During school, Bayer’s SNAP access was not time-restrained because she was working as a teaching assistant. Upon graduation in December 2018, she was designated as an ABAWD (able-bodied adult without dependents), and the clock started ticking.

ABAWDs can only access SNAP for three months in a thirty-six month period, unless they can document 20.5 hours of work per week. Bayer, who has part-time employment as a tutor, works 14 hours per week, in addition to searching for employment in her field and working to publish her graduate research. She is in her fourth month on SNAP and is only able to continue receiving basic food assistance as a participant in a job seeker’s program through Missoula Job Services.

“I have to document 20.5 hours of qualifying activities per week. Because it’s not 20 hours per week, my job tutoring doesn’t count.” Bayer must document job-seeking activities and visit Job Services weekly to meet with her assigned jobs consultant.

“It is hard. It’s hard to spend time on my research papers, getting them out there, and working my job 14 hours per week, and applying to jobs, and trying to get additional tutoring jobs to make ends meet in the meantime so I can perhaps wait a little bit longer for a career position.”

It’s just meanness. It’s mean spirited.

“It’s just meanness. It’s mean spirited.” Sixty miles to the south in Victor, Montana, Barbara Willing is struggling to survive. At 64 years old, she says she will never be able to retire. “My story is one of someone who would have been okay, if not for the recession. I lost everything. It wiped me out.”

With decades of experience on her résumé ranging from office management and secretarial work to manufacturing, technical editing, and linguistics, Willing, who has her master’s degree in English, felt this time of hardship would be temporary. “But at my age, no one will hire you. Not for a job that earns a real wage.”

Living in a rural community away from many services makes things more challenging. “Driving to appointments, having to prove I need these programs. I don’t have the money for transportation, but there’s no way I could afford the rent in Missoula. I have to live out here.”

Willing has been on SNAP since October 2018. She describes the application process as demanding, but not impossible. She waited to apply for assistance until she was truly desperate, with zero dollars to her name and in danger of losing her housing.

“I don’t know how they expect people to make it. I know that as part of this waiver I’m on I can work for free, volunteering somewhere. But I don’t have the money to buy the gas!”

Barriers to employment differ widely from circumstance to circumstance. For Bayer, Willing, and the 755,000 people across the country in similar positions, access to basic needs like food makes the pursuit of career or gainful employment livable. After allowing hundreds of thousands of Americans to go without paychecks during the government shutdown, this administration’s proposed rule is another example of tone-deaf policies that do not reflect the realities of America’s working class.

“The charitable food system is not prepared — is not capable — of picking up the need that this rule change would create. The shutdown was heinous, but it was temporary. This would be disastrous,” says Hess.

For people like Willing, “This rule change, it leaves me out in the cold.”

Editor’s note: To leave a comment on the proposed regulation to limit states’ ability to waive work requirements, visit



First New York, Now Virginia: Why Cities Are Pushing Back on the Handouts to HQ2

The bidding war Amazon incited over its second headquarters did not go as planned.

Instead of culminating in a celebration of the internet retail giant’s corporate citizenship, the yearlong search for HQ2, as it became known, turned into a PR disaster. First, activists and local politicians in New York City raised enough ire about their state’s $3 billion deal for a half-share of HQ2 that Amazon ultimately backed out.

Now activists in Northern Virginia, where Amazon decided to put the other half of its new headquarters, are also hoping to derail the company’s best-laid plans, or at the very least bring some much-needed attention to exactly what is being given away – all three quarters of a billion dollars of it –  to a mammoth company in the name of economic development.

“We’ve been door-knocking mostly in neighborhoods that are low-income neighborhoods, or immigrant as well,” said Danny Cendejas, an organizer with La Collectiva, which is part of a coalition called “For Us, Not Amazon” that is critical of Virginia’s deal with the company. “It ranges from people not knowing Amazon is coming here to not knowing about the incentives that are being offered, to not knowing the effects of Amazon coming here.”

A consistent critique of the Amazon deal, in fact, is that the company hasn’t engaged with the community. “There was not a lot of information being given out, was the sense that we got,” agreed Maha Hilal, co-director of the Justice for Muslims Collective, which is also part of the “For Us, Not Amazon” coalition. But of the people who were aware Amazon was coming, Hilal said, there were some major concerns.

“There is the issue of incentives. With the city granting Amazon incentives, [the residents] are basically paying their taxes to Amazon,” she said. “And the fear of displacement was a big concern. Even though it’s Crystal City where they’re slated to come, it’s going to impact many communities.”

On Saturday, Arlington County’s board will vote on a $23 million package of local tax incentives for Amazon, which would be in addition to the up to $750 million it will receive in incentives from Virginia at the state level. That’s on top of a favorable tax deal already offered to tech companies that relocate to Arlington’s “Technology Opportunity Zone.” Crucially, the proposed deal with Arlington did not include any pledge by the company to pay living wages or put money into affordable housing funds. Instead, Amazon simply has to meet office space occupancy goals.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the New Virginia Majority found that the new Amazon facility in Virginia will displace some 6,000 people, mostly from working-class families, as well as drive up housing costs and exacerbate existing traffic congestion woes.

“This issue with Amazon HQ2 coming here, it will disproportionately affect middle- and low-income people in many ways, in the short and long term. That’s just a fact,” said Julius Spain, president of the Arlington branch of the NAACP. “We have to be cognizant of the low-income communities who may be driven out. They can’t afford to live in a quote ‘revitalized neighborhood.’” The For Us, Not Amazon coalition has asked the Arlington board to formally delay its vote, but as of this writing, that seems unlikely.

So why does this happen? How does one of the richest companies on Earth talk a state and county into giving it hundreds of millions of dollars? Because it can, and politicians pay.

This is how big corporations operate in modern-day America: They pit cities and states against one another in a battle to see who can dish out the most tax breaks, incentives, land grants, and other giveaways to an already-mammoth money-making organization. Companies hold their workforces for ransom and threaten to effectively kill them off by moving somewhere else, and lawmakers cave and pay up. And almost no one follows up in subsequent years to see if anyone’s promises have been kept, perpetuating the cycle.

Estimates for how much state and local governments spend annually on corporate tax incentives vary, but everyone agrees it’s in the tens of billions of dollars annually. And that’s likely an undercount, because navigating subsidies requires keeping tabs on thousands upon thousands of government agencies, offices, and officials, many of whom don’t do an adequate job of tracking what they’re handing out, or intentionally hide their subsidies entirely. A 2017 survey found half of the nation’s 50 biggest cities and counties didn’t even disclose the names of incentive recipients.

Plenty of research has been done on the efficacy of corporate tax incentives, and the consensus is that they don’t have real economic effects. As the researcher Timothy Bartik put it in a 2017 analysis: “Incentives do not have a large correlation with a state’s current or past unemployment or income levels or with future economic growth.”

There are many reasons the effect is so minimal, but one of the big ones is that tax incentives wind up “incentivizing” moves that companies would have made even if they hadn’t received a dime, with companies creating or destroying jobs based on the same considerations that fostered the move, not any particular tax break.

Take the case of Toyota. The car-maker received $40 million from the Lone Star State to consolidate three offices from around the country into one headquarters in the Dallas suburbs in 2013. It was the largest corporate tax break Texas had dealt out in a decade. And Toyota said afterward that the move would have made sense for the company even if those public dollars weren’t on the table.

“That wasn’t one of the major reasons [in] deciding to go to Texas,” Toyota spokesperson Amanda Rice told the Houston Chronicle in the spring of 2014, referring to the subsidies. Instead, “company representatives referenced a host of other factors, including geography, time zone and quality of life.” Yet the company received a $40 million windfall anyway.

This exact critique applies to Amazon and HQ2. After receiving data from hundreds of cities, and spending months picking over the particulars of 20 “finalists,” the company wound up choosing the nation’s capital and the world capital of finance. There are good reasons for it to have an expanded presence in both places that have nothing to do with tax rates. It’s possible it even had them in mind from the very beginning.

In fact, if taxes were the overriding concern, Amazon would have gone to Newark, New Jersey, or Montgomery County, Maryland, both of which offered it much more money than did Virginia and New York.

Given the evidence, why do corporate tax incentives continue to be a plague on state and local budgets?

Because, for a lawmaker, the appearance of doing something to bring in jobs makes for good headlines,  and the cost can always be punted to the next person.

“Politicians really do need to get re-elected, so there really is a political value to issuing press releases and cutting ribbons and passing along the cost to your next three successors,” said Greg LeRoy, director of Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks corporate tax subsidies.

There’s also a collective action problem when it comes to specific subsidies: The company in pursuit of them has every interest in doing whatever it takes to secure its bounty, while opponents have diffuse interests, and may not be particularly harmed by any one deal in a way that necessitates mass resistance. Since the subsidies are bad for the public at large in the aggregate, but beneficial for one interest group in the specifically, organizing to fight back is made difficult.

Political scientist Nathan Jensen, currently at the University of Texas–Austin, has looked specifically at corporate tax incentives and found that their use has an explicit political benefit. “A governor reaps more reward for new investment in his or her state if his or her administration offered tax incentives,” he and three colleagues wrote in a 2013 study that looked at governors and whether their support was bolstered by the use of tax incentives to bring in new businesses. “In fact, a governor will be rewarded for offering tax incentives even if it does not succeed in luring the intended investment.”

And this is true not only at the state level. “In a study of local governments, we learned more about official use of business incentives for electoral gain. We found that directly elected mayors, as opposed to appointed city managers, offered larger incentives and engaged in much weaker oversight of business incentive programs. Elected mayors offered more money and conducted fewer and less rigorous cost-benefit analyses to investigate whether the incentives were economically useful,” Jensen wrote in 2016.  Electoral accountability really wasn’t anything of the sort.

Another factor playing into the politics of incentives is that Americans are starting fewer businesses than they used to. In the 2010s, new business start-ups activity hit rock bottom as the country emerged from the Great Recession, but that was only the culmination of a trend that has been occurring since the 1970s.  There are a lot of theories as to why this decline in America’s entrepreneurial spirit has occurred, including that it’s a result of the decrease in robust anti-trust enforcement, but it’s a certainty that it’s happening. And fewer new businesses means fewer ribbon-cutting opportunities for lawmakers, so they’re all fighting viciously over what’s left.

That effect is apparent even now, as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, along with other New York lawmakers, are still trying to cajole Amazon into re-reversing its HQ2 decision. But for now, New York stands out as a rare victory for activists against the corporate greed machine.

“That was a victory for all communities of color, for all immigrant communities and low-income communities that are fighting daily against the threat of displacement,” said Cendejas. “Deals for economic growth shouldn’t be done on the backs of low-income communities and communities of color.”

“I’m happy that something happened up there in New York, where the people spoke and Amazon listened and they left,” Spain said. “That gave me some motivation to say, ‘listen, the same thing can happen in Arlington.’ Anything’s possible.”

This piece was adapted from “The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs” by Pat Garofalo, out now from Thomas Dunne Books.



Including Disabled Parents Is Key to Universal Child Care

Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, which is intended to improve affordability, access, and quality for child care in the United States. Along with a proposal being floated by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), it’s opening up a much-needed conversation about child care in America that will hopefully extend far beyond this legislation.

One of the most exciting elements of the bill is its explicit callouts of disability, acknowledging the fact that 17 percent of children in America have disabilities and need child care too — but can face barriers to inclusion.

The United States is facing a dual problem of scarcity and unaffordability when it comes to child care. 83 percent of parents with children under age five report difficulty locating affordable child care of sufficient quality in their area. Challenges with paying for child care or finding a suitable provider are pulling parents out of the workforce or leading some people to reconsider parenting altogether.

Common threads in Warren’s Universal Child Care and Murray and Scott’s Early Learning Act and the Child Care for Working Families Act include increasing compensation for child care providers; making child care free or low-cost, depending on income; and investing in quality improvements across the board. But Murray and Scott’s bill is comprehensive and inclusive: It extends services beyond child care centers and into homes and communities, addresses care from birth through age 13 for all children and up to age 18 for disabled children, and invests in full-day, full-year programming to accommodate parents with varying schedules and those who need child care services in the summer.

The disability inclusion in Murray and Scott’s bill — which includes funding for activities such as making sure facilities getting government money are accessible and providing training to staff so they can better serve disabled kids and their parents — builds on the work of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It positions such funding as a routine part of meeting quality standards — something society tends to view as “special treatment” or a “burden.” Everyone in America deserves access to child care that meets the needs of their children, and that includes disabled children, who can be excluded by inaccessible facilities, poorly trained staff, and other barriers.

As long as child care is under discussion, though, it is worth addressing the fact that disability isn’t an issue limited to children and while these bills are an excellent start, we should also be looking to the future. Disabled children grow up and build families of their own ­— 6.2 percent of parents are disabled, and disability is more common in black and brown parents — and those families, in turn, will need access to child care. Sometimes that means care for disabled children of disabled adults, and sometimes it’s care for nondisabled children of disabled adults.

“You really need [child care providers] to be on your team,” explained Dr. Kara Ayers, Associate Director at the University of Cincinnati Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. Ayers is the co-founder of the Disabled Parenting Project, which studies the experiences of parents with disabilities. As part of her research, she said she sees issues like inaccessible restrooms and “just one step” entrances — doorways where a single step is all that lies between wheelchair users and entry — are common at the facilities she visits.

Mandated reporters, people legally required to report possible abuse and neglect to the authorities, may have limited experience with disabled parents. Attitudes about disability may lead mandated reporters to be concerned about disabled parents’ capability. This is an issue with doctors, social workers, and teachers, and Dr. Ayers has found that it can appear in child care as well, an issue that raises personal concerns. “If I come in and these people are weirded out,” Ayers added, “one person could decide my daughter is not safe with me and one call could start that process.”

Comprehensive access to child care must be inclusive of disabled parents.

Ayers speaks to a looming worry in the disability community: In every state, it is legal to weigh parental disability when making determinations about whether to remove a child from a home, on the argument that the parent must be “unfit.” According to a 2012 National Council on Disability study, removal rates climb as high as 80 percent in cases of intellectually disabled or mentally ill parents involved in custody fights.

Disabled parents, said Ayers, worry about admitting that they need help or having to explain that services and supports are not a good fit for them, and that hooks directly into the child care conversation — if disabled people are nervous about communicating their needs, it’s challenging to make necessary recommendations.

Comprehensive access to child care, whether accomplished legislatively or through rulemaking, must be inclusive of disabled parents. For example, funds for increasing accessibility could also be used for continuing education classes to familiarize child care providers with the disability community. For disabled parents, adaptive parenting classes –  which teach people how to navigate parenting with a disability with tips on topics like handling a baby while using a wheelchair and using braille-embossed flashcards to teach sighted children to read – could be made more readily available for expecting or newly-disabled parents through expanded funding.

Likewise, parenting equipment should be made more readily available and affordable through existing systems that already connect disabled people with adaptive tools that help them lead independent lives, such as independent living centers, community programs for new parents of all ability levels, Medicaid, and occupational therapy programs.

The United States should also consider what constitutes “activities of daily living,” the tasks that personal assistants can provide for their clients, currently defined by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services using a model followed by many private insurance providers. The agency’s current definition includes things such as toileting, preparing meals, cleaning, and a wide range of other activities — but most parents would argue they should include parenting, too.

A government-funded personal care assistant “cannot do anything for child care,” said Keith Jones, president of Soul Touchin’ experiences, a community empowerment and policy advocacy group. Jones learned to change diapers with his feet as a new parent worried about being deemed unfit, and commented that it’s ludicrous to ask a personal assistant to “just ignore” a child who clearly needs attention.

As it stands now, Ayers explained, aides may not be allowed to help disabled parents, depending on the terms of their contract. If a baby is crying for attention, they can’t pick them up for a cuddle. If a parent needs help getting a child into a high chair for a meal, they can’t ask their aide for an assist. Explicitly including parenting as an ADL, says Ayers, could help disabled parents and kids alike — and it’s possible to have safeguards for those worried about parents abusing their aides as child care providers.  A regulatory change initiated by CMS could be the most effective way to address this shortcoming.

The growing understanding that child care must be a part of progressive movements is heartening to see, and it’s encouraging that lawmakers like Murray and Scott are exploring disability issues as they develop new policy. Including disability from the start in ambitious proposals like these makes it easier to build on them, creating more equity and justice for the disability community.



The Sprint T-Mobile Merger Could Mean Higher Cell Phone Bills for Low-Income Americans

Sprint and T-Mobile want to turn the big four in America’s wireless market into the big three, merging into a “New T-Mobile.” The two telecom giants tried to pull off the same move in 2014, until regulators made it clear the deal would be blocked to avoid further consolidation in an already heavily concentrated market.

Sensing a Trump-selected Federal Communications Commission Chair would be more open to creating corporate behemoths, and with the threat of “falling behind” on 5G wireless technology in hand, the two firms are taking another crack at the deal. A decision from the FCC is expected sometime this year. (In an attempt to ensure a better result this time, T-Mobile has taken to spending a lot of money at the Trump hotel in D.C.)

The average American is at no less risk from the merger this time around, but if it’s approved the fallout will hit low-income Americans especially hard.

In the words of the economists hired by T-Mobile and Sprint to defend the merger, low-income individuals “more heavily rely on their smartphone for their communications and media consumption,” and therefore will have little choice but to swallow any price increases following the merger. Commenting on the potential impact on low-income individuals at a recent hearing, Phillip Berenbroick of Public Knowledge said the combined firm “will have the power and incentives to raise prices on consumers who are reliant on that connection and have nowhere else to go.”

This is especially concerning given T-Mobile and Sprint’s customers are more likely to be black, Hispanic, and low-income when compared to AT&T or Verizon. In a sense, T-Mobile’s economists were saying the quiet part loud: the “New T-Mobile” would have the ability to raise prices, and knows that they have a vulnerable group of consumers who would be forced to absorb those increases.

Almost all mergers come with worries about whether the merged corporation will increase prices — a concern that is increasingly supported by empirical analysis. Fewer competitors means consumers have fewer alternatives when their provider decides to throw an extra zero on the end of their bill. What’s more, competitors in concentrated markets tend to get cozier with each other, and thus less likely to compete on price in the first place.

Evidence from Austria, the Netherlands and Canada show that the move from four to three firms in the wireless space can lead to drastically higher prices. In Austria, smartphone consumers saw their phone bills rise 50 to 90 percent following the 2012 “four-to-three” merger of H3G Austria and Orange Austria.

The thrust of T-Mobile and Sprint’s argument for the merger is that less is more: They claim that the number of choices for a wireless provider isn’t going down from four to three, but actually going up from two to three. In their telling, T-Mobile and Sprint are the underdogs up against Verizon and AT&T, which hold a combined 70 percent of the wireless market.

But there is a real threat of reduced choice and increased prices that low-income Americans would disproportionately bear.

Although they are smaller players in the overall wireless market, T-Mobile and Sprint play an outsized role in the way many low-income Americans access telecommunications services. The combined firm would hold a 59 percent share of the prepaid wireless market, comprised mainly of low-income Americans unable to qualify for the credit checks required for postpaid plans. This kind of market share would reduce competitive options for the 97 million consumers who depend on prepaid plans and give the “New T-Mobile” immense power in setting prices across the market.

There is currently vigorous price competition for prepaid customers between T-Mobile and Sprint, which would evaporate as soon as the merger was approved. In evaluating the potential harms of the merger, economists submitting comments to the Federal Communications Commission estimated “New T-Mobile” could raise prepaid prices by as much as 15 percent.

A wireless telecommunications market comprised of three giants would be disastrous for low-income consumers.

Beyond their reliance on prepaid wireless plans, low-income individuals are also more likely to rely solely on wireless service for internet. T-Mobile’s hired economists noted that “consumers with higher incomes may be more likely to offload to wi-fi or to consume media … through a broadband connection,” but low-income consumers are more likely to be “cord-cutters,” who are unable to afford multiple modes of connectivity. In 2018, Pew research found that low-income Americans were three times as likely as high-income Americans to own a smartphone while having no home internet connection.

This suggests that while higher-income consumers would be able to shift the type of internet they are using if prices rise, low-income consumers will not have the same option.

The merger is also a threat to the Lifeline Program, which provides access to phone service for nearly 13-million low-income households. Originally introduced in 1985, Lifeline was dramatically expanded and updated during the Obama administration to reflect the importance of wireless connectivity for low-income households. Crucially, Lifeline depends on the willingness of participating carriers to offer the discounted service, which is subsidized by telecom user fees.

As it stands, Sprint is one of the only remaining widespread wireless providers for Lifeline; T-Mobile only offers the program in nine states and Puerto Rico. If the combined entity decides to follow T-Mobile’s lead in its approach to the program, its availability and relevance to low-income Americans could be seriously compromised.

Despite claims to the contrary, the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint has no less potential to be damaging to American consumers than in 2014, when regulators made it clear that such a deal would not be allowed. Evidence suggests a wireless telecommunications market comprised of three giants would be disastrous for low-income consumers at a time when wireless connectivity is increasingly critical for everyday life. An increased phone bill is not simply an inconvenience, but a major barrier to their ability to connect with the world.