Are Cell Phones A Right? Congress Thinks So!

Are Cell Phones A Right? Congress Thinks So! 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 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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  • I’ve seen these commercials and figured it was a government subsidized program. I’m not a big fan but I guess it’s better than people having no communication tool. My biggest worry is people that don’t really qualify finding a way to take advantage of it. Too many programs with good intentions go south for this reason.

  • Thanks for an insightful article. Congress seems to increasingly make the Bill of Rights meaningless.

  • I don’t see cellphones as a right at all. With programs like MetroPCS and Boost Mobile, better cell phones are getting cheaper every day. And while I have a friend who is taking advantage of this program, he’s also lived for years with only a home phone and has never had any problems because of it.

    I realize payphones are disappearing, but giving cell phones to people seems like a stretch to me.

  • PK

    The vicious cycle of poverty and welfare programs at work?

    My biggest issue is how these programs are structured. If I’m getting subsidized housing, heating, food, cellular service, and rides the services themselves better be set up in such a way that there are disincentives to work. If every dollar of extra earnings results in $3 of benefits being taken away for example (and, even in a minimum wage job, time spent to earn the money) – where is the incentive to work?

    Programs like this turn me into more of a fan of a negative income tax (with partially funded refunds) to replace the whole dependency and welfare system. I’m almost convinced to write another article, heh. Good stuff!

    • esther

      Most people on food stamps DO work. Their jobs just don’t pay enough for necessities. People on cash welfare are required to work and have a time limit for cash assistance. People disability are unable to work

  • Great topic Tim,

    I was unaware that such a program existed. As far as I’m concerned, the posts above hit the nail right on the head. I particularly agree with PK. I’d be interested to know how many buy extra minutes, and what the justification for continuing to provide those people cell phones, since they seem to have $20/mo for extra minutes…

  • Bethany

    I have been on a soap box about this very issue recently! I just found out over the weekend that my grandma who worked hard in the restaurant industry her whole life pays $30 for a cell phone every month that she has to buy minutes for every month because the minutes expire per month. She only wants it for emergencies if she is out driving, etc. Whereas the 30 year old guy who lives with my sister in law, who is a very abled body individual who CAN work but chooses to live off our government gets one of these free cell phones has texting, etc. and DOESN’T PAY A DIME FOR IT….grrrrrrr don’t get me started!

    • Lisa

      I do not choose to live off the government. I worked for 10 years putting money into SS. I am disabled now and cannot work. I have not been able to get a cell phone because it costs to much. I am in fear that I will break down on the road and not be able to call for help. I would be unable to walk for assistance. Think before you mouth off. Sometimes people are on programs because they need the help. I have to make 611 dollars pay all my bills for the month. I am always behind on something. I live in Poverty and you bad mouth me. Shame on you.

      • Amy

        any charged cell phone can dial 911 without having service! so if grandma or anyone else gets stranded- there ya go! there is NO NEED to give FREE SERVICE to ANYONE at the taxpayers expense- we pay ENOUGH!!!!!!

  • I totally agree with you, if people want a cellphone, they should have to work for it. I had no idea there was a program like this, are they going to give out iPads next?

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  • James Benford


  • I do not have a cell phone. My parents do not have a cell phone. It is NOT a necessity. Let’s increase food stamps so that people can eat healthier foods.

    • Lisa

      Its a neccessity to people who cannot walk for help if their car breaks down. Get off your soap box and go back to work.

      • Amy

        any excuse is better then none! if your car breaks dial 911 and they’ll gladly send assistance! ANY charged cell phone (no service required) can dial 911 ANYTIME and no charge to the taxpayer!! your not concerned with taxpayers paying the bill because your no longer a taxpayer!!

        • John

          Where have you come up with such nonsense? 911 is for life and death emergency’s. A car breaking down is not an emergency that warrants calling 911. Most 911 operators will laugh and move on to real emergencies.


          The only time the police will get involved with a broken down car is when it is blocking traffic, even then all they will do is push it out of the way. The police are not a roadside service, there is AAA for that only costing $80 a year. But you do need to be able to call a toll free 800 number.

  • Evan

    I am a single father of two children.  One of his my children is a special needs child.  I was a sales manager for an engineering firm that manufactured parts for automobile manufacturers, until I was laid off in 2008.  I worked very hard to find another job to support my children, to no avail.  I did whatever I could to earn a dollar to support my family. Eventually my land line and cell phones were disconnected because I could no longer pay the bill.  I had no way to communicate with specialists for my child’s care, their schools or employers.  I had numerous resumes on the internet for employment but with no reliable way to be reached.  After applying for and recieving a phone he updated his resumes.  Within a few weeks I received a call for an interview and shortly thereafter began a job with one of the largest firms in the country and was employed again.  I was eventually downsized again and again used a phone to find another job.  How do you expect people to dig them selves out of a hole if we do not lend them a shovel?


    • Conservative Taxpayer


      My heart goes out to you. I know how hard it can be to be refused when you WANT to work. Bless you for your efforts to be a responsible parent and citizen. I wish you continued good luck and every blessing for you and your children.

  • Concerened Citizen

    This is completely appalling! I personally know someone who is on the assurance wireless plan and they have a brand new IPhone on the government’s (i.e. taxpayers’) dime with free minutes to boot. At least he does have to pay for all the games he downloads, right?

    I also know that assurance wireless (the other ones probably do as well) pays these people who are already getting free phones and free minutes $1500 just to do a little commercial for them! So our tax dollars pay for their cell phone (which should be a privilege, not a right!) and then the company who’s making money hand-over-fist from these government payouts turn around pays them %1500 for less than one days’ worth of work! How many of us working class schlubs make $1500 a week, let alone a day?!?!

    But back to this guy I know…he is a single father who can’t really hold a job. He’s in sales and he applies for a multitude of jobs he’s not qualified for but occasionally he’ll find a sucker who feels sorry for him. Then he’ll work for a month or two…long enough for his employer to find out he’s really a schmuck..(i.e. not bothering to leave his house everyday for work). The only reason he’s in sales is because it takes a little longer to prove someone isn’t doing their job, so it buys him a little time (and a little more free money). Then when he loses that job, he goes right back to living off the government and religious organizations that pay for his rent, gas, insurance, electricity, water, etc. Then when they start prodding him to get a job again the cycle repeats itself.

    I think these organizations need to be investigated. I’d like to see our money used more wisely. I prefer to give a hand-up not a hand-out.

    And the emergency use argument? What’s wrong with a land line phone that costs $10 a month? There was, after all, a time (not that long ago) when cell phones were considered a privilege you work to earn, not a right simply because you exist. Free I-Phones and minutes galore is ridiculous!

    • Cliff

      You f—ing dumb ass! The iPhone is not even available on this plan until maybe June 29 and then you need to PAY for it yourself. Don’t judge lest you be judged!!!

      • Sandee

        You people seroiusly need to get saved FOR REAL. Judgements and ignorant comments left and right. How about this? Safelink OUTSOURCES their calls to GUAYANA! Directv outsources to Mexico and T-Mobile outsources to India. Give the people in need of a phone one of those jobs and they won’t need the damn phone anymore. Now there’s something to gripe about.

    • Lisa

      I do not get 1500 a month I wish I get 611 for disability and 107 for SSI I am at the limit for me because I went to college for 4 years and never worked a full time job my points are low so I get low monthly amount. I barely survive. Let alone have money for a phone that would provide me assistance if my car breaks down. Not everyone who slips by may really need it but some of us do.

  • Flick

    I am a mail carrier and I see first hand the abuse in another government give-away program. I deliver these phones to people on my route every week that I am sure already had cell phones and I can see that most are not “poor” at all. This plan started out giving people 90 minutes a month for so called emergengy purposes and is now 250 minutes a month. Some websites will try to tell you they are not taxpayer funded but that is crap. It is paid for by the Universal Service Fee that you find on your phone bill every month – tell me that isn’t a friggin tax. It’s just another vote buying scam from the politicians.

  • Conservative Taxpayer

    I’m 59 yrs old. My husband is 69. We’ve worked hard all of our adult lives. Without benefit of college educations, we became Realtors. We sold real estate for 24 yrs. We never made big money, but enough to buy a home and send our son to college at Carnegie Mellon. (He was then recruited by the Navy and has worked his way up THROUGH THE RANKS to become a Lieutenant Commander and Nuclear Engineer.) Then the real estate market tanked and so did our income. Then my husband became very ill and spent the last two years in and out of the hospital. Throughout all of the years we did real estate, we never had the luxury of an employer contribution to our social security payments. We had to pay full price for our individual health care premiums (at $1480/mo.) until my husband enrolled in Medicare. When hubby got sick, I had to take a job as a waitress. For 2 yrs I’ve been trying to get a better job, but it seems that no one wants a 59 yr old receptionist/office asst., (etc.). We are deeply in debt and I’m trying to pay my bills, but I can barely keep the utilities on. I finally swallowed my pride and applied for assistance, which was just approved. If I can get rid of our cell phone bill, I can pay use that money to pay another bill down. I came to this site to do research on the best plan, but was very sorry to find that most of the posts are pretty vitriolic rants against the folks who apply for this assistance. There is no question that this service, like many others, has been abused. I propose, however, that not everyone is an abuser. I don’t need 250 minutes/month, but I do need text because I am hearing impared and cannot use a regular cell or landline. There is no form of assistance that provides hearing aides. I am humbled and grateful for the assistance that I do qualify for. I hope that it shall be temporary. I believe in personal responsibility and fiscal conservatism. I am writing this because I want people to know that for some of us this is a blessing, and I ask that folks have a little compassion and kindness when considering the value of this program, and thank God that they do not have a need for help.

    • Sandee

      Well spoken. Best of luck and prayers in your direction.

      • phoenix

        i agree ……i too am female, mid 50’s, retired from construction, on ssdi since 2010. my income is now less than half of what i made every month working after taxes. so i am looking into which is the better service. i worked hard and raised two children alone. i paid the universal tax on my bills both landline/cell for years before my income and health tanked so i feel no regrets in using the system now. people don’t judge because you don’t know when you or a loved one will need assistance….if you can’t produce paperwork showing you are low income such as tanf/unempoyent/ssi/foodstamps/tax returns/etc you are not eligible. plus you can go to the and it states free phones have been around for over a decade and the program is paid for by the telcom companies not the goverment. trying finding a payphone that actually works and you will see how hard it is to make doctors appt without a phone.

    • Karen

      Great, thoughtful response. Why is it so easy for people to be so very, very quick to JUDGE others? As I wrote before…..”there but by the grace of God/Creator/Universe/Whatever GO I!!!”

  • Pat

    In this day and age, if you’re not connected through technology, you’re dead in the water. No one functions in this country without the phone service or the internet. The majority of people that receive this service truly benefit from it and it is a good thing. Yes, there is fraud. Yes, there is government waste. But cell phone service is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Land lines are becoming obsolete and the cell phone is often the only phone that American’s have. That’s the case with me. I gave up my land line years ago. See how many times you use your cell phone each day, every day. You couldn’t life without it. It may sound frivolous on first blush, but if you really think about it, how can anyone whose already down and out get a step up without being connected to the world. It just won’t happen. For those that absolutely need this, this is their chance to reach out of their poverty and connect themselves to a better chance of life.

  • Shandre

    For those negative ninnies out there. Until you walk a mile in someones shoes, you should not judge. There may be a few people who abuse this, but I bet not many. Has any of you realized how many people are out of work, how many people are disabled through no fault of their own like myself. Rent and utilities are expensive. Many people are a dollar away from being homeless. If you do not have a job, the bare necessities are what you have. I am very thankful and grateful for my phone. When I can afford one again, I will buy one. But until then I am depending upon this phone. The phones are good for those who are ill and need it for emergency reasons and to make doctors appointments. Those who are unemployed need a phone number for prospective employers to call. They don’t give out i-phones on assurance or safelink, so thats a lie. The phone is very basic. Most people like high-tech. I don’t think people are lining up to defraud the government for this type of phone. Overall, people just need to stop judging and complaining about things that you have no knowledge of!

  • Stephanie

    More tax payer funded entitlements for those who choose not to work or support themselves. If this was really for emergencies there would be limits on who the user could call. If’ I’m going to be paying for someone’s cell bill, I’d like it to be my own. They should do away with this immediately and if they think it’s necessary to give some people a way to communicate then it should be for 911 use ONLY.

    • Conservative Taxpayer

      Stephanie, Please read my post of April 14th, as well as some of the others. Be grateful that you have a job that supports you. Many do not. We’re not all “welfare queens”. Some of us have been trying to obtain gainful employment, but have had no success. After many years of working and paying into SS, at 59 yrs of age there not many employers jumping at the chance to hire me…even fast food and discount stores rejected me. I am too “young” to retire. I’m now working two jobs; one as a waitress and the other at Home Depot (temporary, part-time, seasonal) and am grateful for both. Even with these two jobs, my income is still below Federal poverty guidelines. Do you understand that no phone makes it impossible to find a job? Please don’t be so angry about the decision of govt. reps who want to provide assistance to those of us who are seeking a hand up and not a hand-out. You might find that a little compassion would take away some of the sting you feel about your own contribution to this program.

  • James Benford


  • anita antoniak

    My husband and I are on SSI and we had sent information into Assusrance and never heard back – this was months ago. Anyway would we qualify for a cell phone –

  • rio


  • Angie

    I hadn’t heard of this program before, at first it sounds frivolous but if you actually dig deeper it is somewhat of a common sense idea. We live in a world where you really have to have a phone just like you really have to have an address, if you want to attain employment or just be safe. If this was 1990 and there were payphones everywhere like there used to be, I might not feel so much that way, but it isn’t, you need a phone-and its not cheap! My cell bill is 90$ a month with minimum minutes, data and texts!

    From the elderly or disabled person who uses these phones to keep on their person so that anywhere they are, if they need medical assistance-they can get it ASAP to the unemployed person who needs a phone number and can’t afford to keep one with the prices jumping up all the time, so that they can be reached by potential employers, these phones aren’t a luxury item. 911 only phones are helpful but in a limited way, as those who can’t afford phones still do need to be able to contact their doctors etc.

    This isn’t about the constitution, civil rights or anything of the sort, it is about being humane and respecting human dignity. To say you don’t need a cell phone in this day and age is naive. The fact is that land lines these days aren’t even a cheap option. From what I have learned in my research, for most people these lifeline cell phones are there only phones they have, not only that but if you are homeless (some of these people are) then clearly you can’t have a landline phone even if somehow you could afford it.

    People who get these phones aren’t getting super fancy phones, like iphones, and the real cost of what they receive is pretty low(I am guessing that it is 12.85 because the other hand of this program allows for a discount of that amount for other service providers for those that qualify for the lifeline program). I am not sure about the billion dollar number but when I see it, instead of feeling angry, I feel sad. Sad that the economy is so bad and so many people are out of work that they genuinely need this assistance so that they can try and get back on their feet.

    Most people aren’t scammers. Most people don’t lie and say that they are poor so they can get a cheap phone and low minutes paid for them every month. Personally, you couldn’t pay me to take one of those phones but its good to know that such a program is actually out there to help people that need it. I hope I never do need it and I hope that none of those who criticize such a program do either. The true Christian thing, to me, is always to help those in need. Its not up to me to judge the scammers, there is someone else to do that.

  • Karen

    I am the grateful recipient of an Assurance cell phone. I keep it with me whenever I leave the house (i.e.: to weed my garden), or when I walk my dog, or when I drive somewhere. Before I got the phone I was afraid to leave the house and be out of range of my LifeLine button. However, I have two concerns: 1) are the minutes given in the 100 minute referral plan subsidized by taxpayers? and 2) are charges for additional minutes subsidized by taxpayers? It is my opinion that extra minutes should only be available at the low rate if the cell phone is the ONLY phone the person/family has. These are two questions I am going to research.

    I would like to remind people of the following: You may be only a diagnosis away, a paycheck away, a death away from ending up on S.S., S.S.I., or some other type of federal or state assistance. I have a Master’s degree, but after a very serious cancer diagnosis, I ended up on assistance. I am so very grateful for it, I don’t take it for granted, and if I could miraculously become well enough to work again, I would do so in a heartbeat. Everyone has a story. Yes, there are people who misuse the system, but for those of us (the majority) who really need it, and contributed to it for most of our working lives, state and federal assistance is truly a LIFELINE….and that includes the little phone in my pocket that allows me to dial for help when I simply can’t manage to walk that last block to my house. Just remember, “There but by the grace of God go I.”

  • I don’t think cell phones are a right, but I think everyone has a right to know about low-cost cell phone plans. Most people are grossly overpaying for their cell phone bills, and a lot of them are lower-income people that can’t afford to pay that in the first place.

  • Annoyed

    Nobody said you have to live in the united states if you don’t like the government then move

  • Amber

    Yes, a cell phone is a right. Its means of communication everywhere you go and especialy disabled people need these. The phone companies who are taking part of these programs are actualy cheap to begin with, not even near as mutch as a plan would cost, the phones they offer retail for not even 10 dollers each. Its a cheap program, its cheaper than providing home phones, its easier its makes more sense and yes owning a cell phone is a right.

  • TechGuru

    Many of you may not be aware that the FCC has made it to where landline providers are NO LONGER REQUIRED to run service lines out to anyone that wants it. This means there will start to be areas where one can not get a land line even if they are rich. Cell phones have replaced land lines so lifeline moving from land lines to cell phones is not a big leap.

    Anyone that thinks that cell phones are a luxury is a complete bigot with no concept of the reality of the world we now live in.

    BTW, the FCC has now mandated “Lifeline Internet” that will be available soon for $9.99/mo for a 1mbps connection.

  • helen


    Want to tell all the complainers to #@$% OFF! How dare you? I have a disabled baby and I am ALONE. WHY? should we have a cell phone…how about when the car breaks down and hes turning blue???? Stupid #%A^AA# you all make me sick.

    By the way, if you werent so stupid you would realize this program is made by these cell phone companies to suck off of your tax payer money that pays for welfare …KNOW WHY? They give a crap amount of minutes free. You can spend an 2 hours just holding for your Welfare departments answering machine and once you have NO MINUTES, you pay to get minutes like you are paying interest on a pawned item. So people take the money they need for living expense just so they have a phone.

    A lot of people cannot afford a landline and for them to make a landline program ..oh you group of geniuses..duh duh duh…they would have to goveen 809098098 local companies’ services. Hence why they give out cells. Hard to believe such empty headed people like yourselves actually can hold a must work for your parents.

    • TechGuru

      Um, they’ve had Lifeline for landline phones for 20+ years now, they’re just receently in the past few started offering it for cell phones.

      Odd thing is, the land line lifeline is NOT FREE, you’ll still pay about $15/mo after the discounts. The cell phone lifeline on the other hand is free. Kinda backwards and encourging people to go for the cell instead of a landline.

  • Minou1

    I agree with Evan and others whose stories show that the economy has been unkind to them and their families. Very few people are looking for a “freebie” or a “handout”. Most people avail themselves of the sponsored cell phone program because they NEED to in order to look for work, and stay in touch with family members for emergencies. You have to jump through a few hoops to get one of these phones, and it isn’t as if they are the newest Smartphones with web access. They are basic communication tools.

    Cell phones are necessities today, unfortunately. Those who do not have them are the equivalent of handicapped, and at a severe disadvantage when it comes to seeking and landing jobs. Help people out of the hole by lending a shovel.

    • TechGuru

      “Cell phones are necessities today, unfortunately”

      Please allow me to put this a better way…

      A Phone Is A Necessity To Function In Today’s Society.

      Cell Phones (& VOIP) Are Replacing Landlines (POTS) In Today’s Society at a Very Fast Rate.

      In many third world devloping countries is it not uncommon to see people with cell phones. This is because landlines do not exhist there and probably never will because it is much easier to put up a few towers to cover a large area rather than run copper or fiber lines down every street.

      My point is, cell phones are the new standard phone. A landline is now the luxury.

      My cell phone is cheaper per month than what a (POTS) land line would cost. Not to mention my cell phone can call anywhere in the USA, a landline charges long distance fees outside the local area and if you add on the unlimited long distance it goes way higher than a cell phone bill.

  • Eileen

    They should have limited use. 911, dispatch, and a direct link to job services.

    I have a much different opinion for seniors who are struggling to survive on SS .

    I had a prepaid phone for years that cost 10 bucks and a few hundred mins for under 20 dollars.

  • K C

    Safelink is NOT taxpayer supported, it’s funding comes directly from the telecoms.