July 24, 2012. Washington. The rumors and conspiracy theories surrounding the welfare cell phone program have become so heated, the truth is often being sacrificed for the sake of outrage and politics. We looked into the government’s free cell phone program, as well as talked to happy recipients. The program is real. And like many things, it’s been enriching the telecommunication corporations, not just the poor. Here’s how you can get yours.
Corporations and welfare advocates alike are pushing the free welfare cell phones.
Is the government really providing free cell phones and free cell phone service to poor people?
For such a simple question, you’d be surprised by the variety of answers given by allegedly impartial news outlets. Here’s a quick summary, followed by the actual details and information on how to obtain your own free cell phone if you qualify.
Many on the conservative right have been labeling these welfare cell phones as, “Obama phones”. The fact is, the free government phone program was created under President Clinton as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to Urban Legends at About.com, one portion of the program called ‘Lifeline’ originally existed on one form or another as far back as the Reagan White House in the early 1980’s.
Along with providing emergency phone service to the poor, the federal law helped establish internet access for rural hospitals and helped provide phone and internet service for schools and libraries.
Welfare for the poor, small towns, rural homes, telecom giants
Another misleading statement being spread by many is that this is another Federal welfare program for the poor. The truth is, the program is part of state welfare for many of those very same middle and upper class people comfortably living in rural areas. The 1996 program was mainly used to subsidize cell phone service for people living too far from big cities. Otherwise, the cost to provide service so far out would have been quite high to the customer.
In 2010, The Heritage Network detailed the program’s existence in just 20 states, “with more to follow”. In 2008, it showed the program’s cost to be $819 million. It was expected to pass $1 billion in 2010. A report from Breitbart.com estimates the cost to reach $2.1 billion in 2011 and $3.3 billion by 2014.
In their report, The Heritage Network spoke to Jose Fuentes, director of Government Relations for TracFone, one of the program’s providers. Fuentes explains that the phones can’t be used for “heavy usage”. He explained that the phones are meant “for quick phone calls, as well as a way for people to reach you in case of…emergency or for calls from a potential employer.”
Other recipients of the free phones have given other reasons for appreciating the phones. They often use their precious free minutes or texts for their kids. These are poor families with children after all.
More often than not, the phone is used by a child to tell a parent when to pick them up or to just take with in case of an emergency. It’s used to call for directions when lost or to make doctor’s appointments. And most importantly, it’s used to call 911 in times of life and death emergencies. Also to bring it into perspective, the phone is often used to sit on hold for 60 minutes while trying to call the very same government social services.
Lifeline and Link-Up
The program in question is actually two programs – Lifeline and Link-Up. It provides free cell phones (the cheap $10 or $20 type) and 125 to 250 free monthly minutes or text messages. To qualify, individuals must be on a state welfare program including food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, Head Start or any of a number of others.
When the program first began in the 1980’s, it was a telephone program for entire poor regions, not poor individuals. Towns and counties with low incomes in far-off reaches were provided with discounted phone service paid for by the Universal Service Charge. First it paid for telephone poles across the country. Then it paid for cell towers across the country.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, the mission of providing phone service to all individuals throughout America has been a priority since the 1930’s. As the FCC confirms, the Universal Service Charge is not a tax and none of the money goes into the US Treasury. Instead, it is a government-mandated tax on all interstate telephone companies. A tax they collect and then spend themselves.
The telephone companies are required to pay a tax to fund the cost of telecommunications infrastructure and subsidized service in order to bring telephone service to every remote portion of the country, and every person. As the FCC points out, some phone companies pay the tax out of their own profits while some pass it onto customers as a line-item on their monthly bill.
The alleged scam
To truly appreciate this free cell phone program, one must put themself in the position of the cell phone companies, not the poor family happy to be able to make one call a day or even the small town with a population 128 that now has cell service.
Two of the most popular companies offering the free phone and minutes are SafeLink Wireless and Care Wireless. If one delves deeper, it becomes clear that other, more well-known companies are behind the program, phones and services. Verizon and TracFone are just two.
These telecom giants:
After looking at it from a number of points of view, it seems apparent that a great number of people are benefiting from the free cell phone program. Any American living in a small or remote town is receiving discounted cell phone service as part of their welfare. The nation’s poor who have received their free phone and 200 monthly minutes are benefiting. Most of all however, it’s the cell phone companies that are benefiting, and profiting. Not only do they get to play the role of government tax collector, they get to assess the tax, keep the tax and then pay themselves for work and charges they and only they control or see.
Considering the program has been around for decades, perhaps it’s not the poor that have done anything differently to cause the cost of the program to jump from $800 million to an anticipated $3 billion. One reason is the fact that the economic crash has put millions of additional families into poverty. Another reason is the fact that we now have a Democratic administration that would like to see more services given to the nation’s poor. Most obviously, more states have begun participating. The final reason this program has skyrocketed in popularity and cost might possibly be because the cell phone companies get to make up the charges and rules however it profits them the most.
For those outraged about the welfare cell phone program, there’s a Republican-sponsored Bill before the House of Representatives that would eliminate the cell phone subsidy for the poor. Details about HR 3481 titled, ‘Stop Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act of 2011’ can be found at OpenCongress.org.
For those interested in applying for and receiving their own free cell phone and 125 or 250 free monthly minutes, Whiteout Press can recommend the below two providers. Neither will charge you anything. They send the phones through the mail to your home. When you run out of minutes, the phones stop working until they automatically refill with minutes the following month. That’s all there is to it.
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