According to some estimates, the average cell phone bill for a single user is $70 per month. For a family of four, the cost goes up anywhere between $160 to $180. For a low income household earning less than $30,000 annually, this number is over 7% of their income. In other words, phones are unaffordable. A person in this situation should ask themselves: Am I eligible for a free Obama Phone? If currently you receive benefits from a government assistance program, you may automatically qualify for an Obama Phone.
9 Government Programs That Automatically Qualify You for an Obama Phone
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
- Veterans Pension or Survivors Pension
- Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) General Assistance
- Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Tribal head Start
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
Receiving benefits from one of these 9 programs will qualify you for a free government phone through the assistance program. All you need to do is verify to the Lifeline provider that you obtain benefits from one of those programs, and that service provider will be able to connect you with a free phone.
The Obama Phone, despite its name, was not a government program started by President Obama. It actually began during the Reagan administration with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) creating the Universal Access Initiative to subsidize landline phone services. Subsequent presidents including George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama continued the program. During Obama’s presidency, cell phone use really took off among consumers, so the name stuck—but the actual name of the program is Lifeline.
The Obama phone program does not involve the government giving low income consumers a free government cell phone. Rather, low income consumers who qualify sign up with independent cell phone provider companies like Safelink Wireless, ReachOut Wireless and Assurance Wireless. There are dozens of other phone service providers, perhaps the most well known of which is Tracfone. They distribute the phones and administer the phone plan for their users, and the government pays them a subsidy drawn from the Universal Service Fund. This fund is bankrolled by anyone in America who pays a phone bill. A small percentage of their bill goes toward subsidizing phones for low income families or individuals.
Many of these programs were created to provide low income Americans whose incomes fall below the Federal Poverty Guideline. SNAP benefits, also known as the Food Stamp program, connects low income Americans with much needed nutritional benefits. Medicaid provides low income consumers who would otherwise be unable to purchase their own health insurance plans with taxpayer funded health insurance. Federal Public Housing Assistance connects low income families with affordable subsidized housing. These programs assist Americans with a total household income low enough to qualify them as welfare recipients—and it means they also have Lifeline eligibility.
How to Qualify for the Obama Phone
In order to show eligibility for an Obama Phone, you will need to either show that your income makes you eligible. Another way that you can prove eligibility for an Obama Phone is to show proof of participation in an income-based government benefits program. In most instances, participation makes you automatically eligible.
There is no centralized administration for applying to obtain a free Obama Phone, but rather applicants can go to the individual telecom providers that receive government subsidies and apply for a phone by presenting their qualifications. Once they’ve secured their phone, they’ll be able to enjoy up to 250 minutes of talk time every month, or in some cases, cheap internet broadband.
How Do I Prove My Participation in a Qualifying Federal Program?
If you are enrolled in SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, Federal Public Housing Assistance, or the other programs outlined above, the Lifeline Benefit program is automatically accessible to you, provided you can prove your participation.
To prove participation in one of the government programs outlined above, you need to show a card, letter, or document that contains the following information:
- The name of the Lifeline-qualifying program
- Your name OR…
- The name of your benefit qualifying person (BQP)
- An issue date within the past 12 months OR
- a future expiration date aligning with the benefit period.
If you are showing proof of a Tribal program to obtain an Obama Phone, the document you use as proof of eligibility will need to show the name of the government or Tribal program administrator or the managed care organization (MCO) that issued the said document.
For example, if you had a letter from the Social Security Administration stating that you have been awarded food stamps, and that letter was sent to you six months ago, that would be a sufficient form of proof to show eligibility for Lifeline and obtain a free cell phone.
When these government assistance programs send paperwork like a benefits approval letter, they tend to send a large amount of other material with it. You may want to trash the whole package and just keep the EBT card (for SNAP benefits) or the Medicaid card (for health insurance), but you should consider saving at least the primary page of the approval letter with your name, the date, and the agency issuing the benefits, so that you have it available as proof of benefits for something like receiving a free government cell phone.
How Do I Prove My Income?
You have eligibility for an Obama Phone if your income is 135% or less than the Federal Poverty Guidelines. If you are trying to get into the Lifeline Program based on income, you will need to show the phone provider three consecutive pay stubs or a tax return from the previous year. This is one of the many reasons it’s good to save a copy of your state and federal tax returns for at least seven years, and pay stubs for at least one year. In today’s working world, many companies use a third party payroll system that stores pay stub information on a remote cloud. This allows you to access it and print it out when you need to show proof of income.
If you are self-employed, you may not have pay stubs to show for your work, but you can show a state or federal tax return, either one of which will have your income listed on it.
Federal Poverty Guidelines
These guidelines—also called the Federal Poverty Level—show at what point a household income is below the poverty line, as determined by the Federal government. The poverty line is an annual income that the government has decided is the minimal living threshold for housing (shelter), food, transportation, clothing, and other necessary items. Households with an income lower than this number often qualify for government assistance programs like SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid (free or low cost health insurance) sometimes even SSI (Social Security Insurance), and Obama Phone.
The Federal Poverty Guidelines depend on family size and whether a family is in the contiguous 48 states, Alaska, or Hawaii. As long as an economically independent household has a total annual income of 135% of the federal poverty guidelines, it can qualify for the Lifeline Program. So, for example, a family of four with a household income of less than $35,370 annually in Florida would qualify for an Obama Phone, but a family of three with an annual income of more than $36,653 living in Alaska would not.
You may be surprised that Lifeline Eligibility is predicated on having a total household income of no more than 135% of the Federal Poverty Level. Many programs, SNAP included, actually have cutoff thresholds higher than the Federal Poverty Level. This allows the decision making around these programs to have some flexibility. If the cutoff number was set in stone, many people who would benefit from these programs would be denied, creating a ripple effect that could permeate into a more community-wide result. These programs are not meant to cut down on individual poverty alone, but to improve the overall living conditions in entire communities.
The same is true with telecommunications, which today includes phone usage and the internet. The theory behind subsidized phone service programs is that they will close opportunity gaps between different communities within the United States, allowing formerly disenfranchised individuals and even larger groups to obtain the same opportunities that are available to families who can afford technology like computers, multiple phones, and high speed internet. The Obama Phone makes it easier to stay safe, find and retain better employment, and access educational resources.
What Is a Household?
Lifeline legally defines a household as a group of people who live together and share money. They do not need to be biologically related or related by marriage. They just need to share the same address, and they do need to share their finances—because if they don’t, that’s not a household.
Examples of a household might include a married couple, a parent or guardian and their child, and an adult living with other adults and who is financially supported by them. Examples of separate households include several roommates living in the same house, and seniors living in an assisted living facility.
Lifeline will only award one subsidized Obama Phone per household. If you are living with someone else (such as a roommate) and would like to distinguish yourself from someone who is already in the Lifeline Program, so that you too can get your own Obama Phone, you can fill out a Household Worksheet, which will ask detailed questions about the nature of your relationship with other residents of the same address.
How to Qualify for the Obama Phone
The Obama Phone is all about keeping America connected. With some estimates suggesting that as much as 50% of America struggles to pay for basic living expenses (housing, food, and medical insurance), it should be no surprise that the added expense of a phone bill for $800 to $2,160 annually is a burdensome expense.
Thankfully, the Lifeline Program has created subsidize opportunities to each and every household to obtain access to a phone and internet, making it easier to make emergency calls, find and retain employment, keep in touch with family, and enjoy the mental health benefits of staying connected to the outside world. In the bigger scheme of things, the Obama Phone Program—or the Lifeline Assistance Program, as it’s officially called—may have the power to transform the economic landscape of your country by bridging opportunity gaps.