Are Cell Phones A Right? Congress Thinks So!

by Tim on February 14, 2012

You might not realize it, but the Government has a program that provides free cellphones and service to low-income and elderly consumers who don’t have the means to pay for telephone service.  Before you form an opinion or run out to look into the main program providers (Safelink and Assurance Wireless), here’s some background on the Lifeline program.

Originally started in 1984, the Lifeline program expanded to provide telephone service to low-income consumers.

As stated by several members of congress, “a cell phone can literally be a Lifeline for families and provide low-income families, in particular, the means to empower themselves.”  (September 2011)

How the Lifeline Application Works

To qualify, most low-income consumers will either certify or show that they are enrolled in specific government assisted programs (like welfare, or food stamps) or show that their annual income falls below a certain percentage of poverty.  Some states do not determine eligibility through income, but most will require you to have income equal to or less than 150% of poverty.

Who Pays for These Free Government Cell Phones?

While the FCC claims that measures are being placed to reduce fraud, it doesn’t take away from the fact that taxpayers are projected to pay $2.4 billion to support the Lifeline program.  The program has grown by 5 times since 1998 when the program cost around $582 million.   While the cellphones are usually subsidized by the service provider like Safelink or Assurance, the minutes and service fee is paid by taxpayers (hence the $2.4 billion budget for 2012).

How Do These Free Cell Phone Plans Work?

If someone does qualify for the free government cell phones under the Lifeline program, they’ll receive service from two major providers: Safelink and Assurance Wireless.

Safelink Free Cell Phone Features

  • Free TracFone
  • 250 Minutes Per month
  • Free Local & National Long Distance, and texting
  • No Bills
  • No Contracts
  • No Credit Checks
  • Ability to buy extra minutes
  • Refer a friend bonus – 100 minutes per enrolled friend

From Safelinkwireless.com: Safelink is available in 36 states. Eligibility guidelines vary by state but in general individuals qualify if they participate in a public assistance program such as:


  • Food Stamps
  • Medicaid,
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • National Free School Lunch
  • Federal Housing/Section 8 Assistance
  • If they do not receive any of these public assistance programs, they may also qualify based on total household gross monthly income.

Assurance Wireless Free Cell Phone Features

  • 250 FREE Voice Minutes
  • Free Phone
  • Voicemail, call waiting, caller ID included
  • No Annual Contract
  • Nationwide Sprint Coverage

Extra Options Include

  • $5/Month to get: 500 Total Voice Minutes
  • $20/Month to get: 1,000 Total Voice Minutes + 1,000 Texts

Eligibility also varies by state, but generally you’ll qualify if you receive these benefits already:

  • Medicaid
  • Food Stamps/SNAP
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

So Are Cell Phones a Right?

As far as cell phones being considered a right for everyone, I would disagree.  The Constitution clearly points out three fundamental rights of all Americans, which include: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.   I consider that third right ‘pursuit of Happiness’ to mean that if we want something (like a cell phone) we need to pursue it with work.

When it comes to being charitable and assisting the poor, elderly, and disabled, I think we have a moral obligation to assist with basic necessities of life such as food or clothing.  There are plenty of worthwhile charities that provide these things – and I’m sure you’ve probably supported a few through generous giving.  But the argument for free cell phones for the low-income just doesn’t make sense to me.  Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t justify that kind of spending (2.4 BILLION in 2012) when America is in such debt.  In fact, just like someone in debt, I’d recommend they trim their cell phone bill or cut it altogether – maybe Congress should do the same!

In my opinion, programs like these only encourage low-income consumers to stay low income.  What’s the incentive to move up in the workforce if you’re getting luxuries like cell phones paid for each month – especially when you get a refer-a-friend bonus of 100 extra minutes!  It’s a flawed program that incentivizes people to remain in their low-income situation.

What are your thoughts on the free government cell phones?  Leave your (tasteful) comment below.

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