Cell phones for free! / by kevin murray

I was recently talking to my Aunt who told me that there was a program for people to get free cell phone service from the government.  That seemed a little hard to believe but to humor her I commiserated with my Aunt in my agreement that this was indeed "appalling" and to be honest, I didn't think much further on it, because I chalked the whole thing up to "urban legend."  I mean, people pay incredible amounts of money for iPhones month after month, for the iPhone itself, for the service, and a meaningful amount of iPhone users are struggling just to pay their bill monthly so I knew that there couldn't possibly be a program that provides free cell phone service in America.  I thought, perhaps, they might have a free cell phone program for senior citizens, especially the ones that fall down and can't get up, but that program is run by a private company called "lifecall" and it definitely isn't free, so I figured case closed.  But to my surprise, a recent Stossel  TV program covered the free cell phone scam and did a tremendous job in opening up my eyes, and while I don't have that much to really add to the story I thought I may as well put in my own few cents.


Apparently the lifeline program was created in 1984 to provide a discounted landline for low-income Americans to communicate and therein lays the first fundamental error.    Instead of subsidizing phone usage, the government should have subsidized or provided CB radios.  CB radios are both portable and reliable in true emergency situations and allow you to receive news and weather updates in crisis situations as well as the ability to communicate with others.    Fast forward to 2013, and the lifeline program has morphed into providing free cell phones for impoverished people, in which it appears just about anyone can skirt the rules and be issued a phone.


In fact, the free cell phone deal is so good; I was tempted to take advantage of it myself.  I mean you get a free phone, you also get 250 fee talk time minutes as well as the critical 1,000 text messages, so to be honest, the free cell phone would hardly crimp my style and certainly I could use it as an adjunct to my main communication device.  I decided to visit the safelinewireless.com website to see how easy the application process was and it's remarkably easy to navigate, in fact, you can finish your enrollment in less than 5 minutes.  They then give you three categories to qualify with:



            Program (like Medicaid, Section 8 housing)

            My child belongs in the program


I looked at all three categories and decided that income was the best fit, after selecting "income" the next webpage showed me the income level that you could not exceed, depending on the total persons in your household, I then selected a low-income level that was appropriate for my household size and the final webpage indicated that I was approved, but there was that "penalty of perjury" clause that precluded me from feeling comfortable with clicking all the way through on that final page.   Had, I instead, signed that form, I would have received my free cell phone, subject to any potential penalties for perhaps perjuring myself.


The reason the free cell phone plan is such a horrific scam is the following.  First off, the marketing guys that try to sign you up outside a welfare office, for instance, are paid per enrollment, which according to SafeLink wireless is "…up to $10 per enrollment!"  With that kind of incentive, you're motivated to sign up as many people as possible, whether they are eligible or not, after all that's not your problem.    The next issue is the phone companies themselves find the program to be quite lucrative, in which the parent company of SafeLink wireless (Tracfone) received $452 million in 2011 from lifeline's subsidies according to money.cnn.com. Finally, the program itself just isn't necessary, a cell phone isn't a right, it's a tool, and a convenience.  If the government really believes that cell phones are necessary for impoverished people, than perhaps they should make that a category that is covered under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  Of course, I can hear the cries of disbelief now, "you mean to say that you believe people should be able to spend their food stamp monies on cell phone service."  Yes, I do, and if they are really hungry, they can always call a friend.