The origins of the ‘Obama phone’
A viral video flying around the Internet in the last week of September introduced America to the “Obama Phone Lady,” an angry woman with a shrill voice who turned up at an Ohio rally for the Republican presidential candidate and snarled, “Romney sucks!” Asked why she supported Obama, she rattled off a list of benefits, including: “Everybody in Cleveland minorities got Obama phones! Keep Obama in President, you know? He gave us a phone!”
Her in-your-face determination to hang on to government benefits rankled taxpaying Americans. But the most widespread immediate response to the video was, “What the heck is an ‘Obama phone?’”
It turns out the Obama Phone Lady is entirely correct about the existence of a program to provide welfare recipients with free or heavily subsidized cell phones, but Barack Obama had nothing to do with it. A program called Lifeline Assistance, originally intended to help low-income people install landline telephone service, has existed for decades. It was implemented by the Federal Communications Commission in 1984, and has changed several times over the years. There are also state-level programs that provide telecom welfare benefits.
One of the more significant changes to the Lifeline package of programs came in 2008, when subsidies for cell phone service began. On one hand, the rapidly declining cost of cell phones and cellular service made it inevitable that they would eventually become part of telecom welfare. At this point, cell phone service is arguably cheaper to provide than landline installation and service. On the other hand, it’s hard to justify buying cell phones for America’s growing dependency class. It has a certain “straw that broke the camel’s back” feeling about it.
The program is not at all difficult to qualify for. The precise eligibility requirements vary from state to state, but income within 135 percent to 150 percent of the official poverty level (currently $23,000 for a family of four) is generally required. Those who are already enrolled in a variety of welfare programs, including the increasingly ubiquitous food stamp program, automatically qualify for cell phone subsidies. Everyone else funds the program through a surcharge on their monthly cell phone bill.
Link to food stamp program
The generally explosive growth of Food Stamp Nation has driven the expansion of subsidized cell phones as well. An August report in the Dayton Daily News said that the program “has nearly doubled in size in Ohio in the past year, now covering more than a million people.” Nationwide, it is estimated that the Lifeline Assistance program grew 43 percent to 16.5 million from 11.5 million participants.
The FCC recently implemented reforms designed to cut down on the number of “free” cell phones handed out to illegitimate recipients, including a sizable number of people who ended up with more than one government-subsidized cell phone. As with so many other aspects of Food Stamp Nation, the procedures for checking applicant eligibility were scandalously lax. Nevertheless, the administrators of these programs estimate that only a little over half of the eligible beneficiaries are taking advantage of them.
Although President Obama had nothing to do with cell phone welfare, his name became associated with it due to a series of viral emails beginning in 2009. These emails were usually written in a tone of disgust, inviting the reader to marvel at how “taxpayer money is being redistributed to welfare recipients for free cell phones,” as one example put it. The unknown authors of these emails often claim to have overheard people chatting about their “free Obama phones.”
It’s disturbing how so many people have proven reflexively willing to associate government welfare “benevolence” with President Obama. A wide-ranging scam claiming that Obama would pay your electric bill took in hundreds of suckers nationwide, earlier this year. Liberals who assail the “Obama phone” story as misleading are missing the point. The problem is that a fair number of the people who have them apparently use that name for them. And according to those FCC estimates, nearly 12 percent of the adult population of the United States might qualify for them.