Eligibility Guide To Government Benefits & Family Resources

Cell Phone Assistance Programs
For Low-Income Americans

Mobile phones play a central role in modern society. They have changed the way we shop, travel, interact with each other, and even the amenities local government makes available to the public. Communication access is an absolute necessity these days. It’s even more important in day-to-day life than a home computer. Today, cell phones are used to stay in contact with prospective employers, medical professionals, family, and emergency help, making them part of the glue that binds the social fabric together.

So what on earth are you supposed to do if you can’t afford one? Even though the prices have come down over the years, it’s not as if phones, or the corresponding plans offered by U.S. cellular providers, are cheap. Thankfully, there are options out there for people who are struggling with low income and financial issues but still need to be in touch. Here’s a review of some options designed to help you out.


Lifeline Federal “Obama Phone” Program

The Lifeline Assistance program dubbed the “Obama Phone” due to its rapid expansion during Barack Obama’s presidency is designed to provide affordable communications to low-income Americans. The corresponding plans offer minutes, text, and data.

Fun fact: The “Obama Phone” nickname is just the result of a misleading YouTube video that went viral. Though the program did grow tremendously during the time of the Obama Administration, the first free phone was given out during the Bush Administration, which in turn was a result of a policy signed during the Clinton Administration. Regardless of the origin, this program provides many people with much-needed communication services.

Not everybody qualifies for this program. Only those who are already participating in another state or federal assistance program or with an income that is below a certain limit can avail of this benefit. The process of determining your eligibility is relatively quick and easy, but it’s important to remember that the federal government only sponsors the Obama Phone program. The various state governments implement the program, and the eligibility requirements will differ from state to state.

Downside: Many of the companies that participate in the program were established solely to compete for business within this program, making them smaller, regional companies, rather than major technological players who don’t have to rely on governmental incentives. However, three major cellular providers (Safelink Wireless, ReachOut Wireless, and Assurance Wireless) offer access to this program on an almost-nationwide basis.

It’s not difficult to get your hands on an “Obama phone,” especially if you’re already on a government program like Medicaid or SNAP. For more information, and to find out if you qualify, check out the link at the bottom of this page.

Now let’s look at what the big companies offer:

Verizon Lifeline – Verizon is one of the biggest teleservice providers in the U.S. They offer a federal program known as Lifeline, which provides qualified low-income customers with discounts on their monthly bills, and waives activation fees for subscribers living on Tribal Land.

-Downsides: The program itself is available in only certain parts of just four states: Iowa, North Dakota, New York, and Wisconsin. On top of that, only one account per household can avail of the program.

As expected, not everyone is eligible to enroll in the program, and the requirements vary by state, within the four-state coverage area. Applicants are also required to provide documentation that demonstrates financial difficulties and eligibility for the benefits offered by Lifeline benefit.

If you’d like to check out your eligibility and learn a bit more about Lifeline, everything you need to know is on the Lifeline page of Verizon’s website.

AT&T Lifeline – Another one of the big kahunas, AT&T, also offers their version of the Lifeline program. The restrictions and benefits are essentially the same ones Verizon offers: Discounted rates to eligible individuals, additional discounts to people living on Tribal Lands, and a restriction of one Lifeline account per household. AT&T does have Verizon beat when it comes to availability. Lifeline is available in certain areas in 15 states.

To find out if you meet the eligibility requirements for the program, check out the Lifeline area of AT&T’s site.

T-Mobile Lifeline – In keeping with the status-quo established by Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile also offers a Lifeline program that presents low-income individuals with discounts in monthly plans, and additional discounts to those living on Tribal Lands restricted to one per household, of course. The availability of T-Mobile’s Lifeline isn’t as substantial as AT&T’s, but it’s also not as limited as Verizon’s service. T-Mobile’s Lifeline program is available in 10 states, placing it in the middle of the other options.

The eligibility requirements also vary by state, but with T-Mobile, the actual discounts can vary by state, too. That can be a good thing, as your state may have better offers than others. Additionally, T-Mobile’s Lifeline rate plan comes with unlimited voice calls.

If you’d like to know more, check out the Lifeline area of the T-Mobile website.


Final Word

It’s a good idea to look through the benefits and discounts offered by each carrier, but do keep in mind that each carrier also has a different level of signal coverage in each area. Most of these companies can offer you a coverage map that will allow you to see the signal strength in your area. You might find an offer you like, but there’s no point in taking it if that particular company doesn’t have good (or any) coverage where you live. That unit would be one fancy paperweight. A good deal is a good deal, it’s true, but only when that deal is right for you.