Cell phones are integrally important in daily life. But you might be surprised that many Americans still cannot afford a mobile phone or pay for phone service—at least they couldn’t until the Obama Phone.
- 5 Ways the Obama Phone Can Help
- What is an Obama Phone?
- 5 Ways the Obama Phone Can Help
- History of the Obama Phone
- What About Landline Phones?
- The Obama Phone
5 Ways the Obama Phone Can Help
- Communicate with Doctor and Other Medical Professionals
- Communicate with Employers to Find a Job
- Make Emergency Phone Calls
- Connect with Family Members
- Close Opportunity Gaps
Believe it or not, the first cell phone came out in 1973—but this massive Motorola device was not practical or cost effective for the average consumer. As we entered the 21st century, cell phones became available for consumer usage, while also transitioning into multifaceted devices with a wide range of other functionalities. Today, consumers use cell phones to make calls, send text messages, check their email, surf the internet, and socialize with other individuals on social media networks.
Cell phones are useful for forging necessary contacts on the go, such as medical professionals. It makes working or searching for a job much easier, especially for individuals who may not have a computer at home and need to conduct a job search at a public location like the library. Most people with a cell phone today find the ability to connect with friends and family indispensable, for example, parents who can keep better track of their children’s whereabouts or be available in case of an emergency.
Not everyone can afford a cell phone. As of 2019, there were around 260 million cell phone users in the US out of a population of 328 million. That seems like a decent percentage, but other statistics tell a different story. Around 30% of adults with an income below $30,000 don’t own a cell phone. Around 40% don’t have the internet at home, and almost 50% don’t have a computer of their own. The upshot of these statistics is that lower income Americans rely on cell phones for the computer-like functionalities and internet connection, though they still lag behind in cell phone ownership.
What is an Obama Phone?
The Obama Phone is not a specific type of phone or service plan. Rather, the Obama Phone—the official name of which is the Lifeline Assistance Program—subsidizes phones and plans offered by smaller wireless providers outside of Verizon, AT&T, Spring, and TMobile. The three biggest names in the Lifeline Program are Safelink Wireless, ReachOut Wireless, and Assurance Wireless, each of which offers phone plans and phones. There are dozens of other wireless providers around the country offering phones and plans. That said, Obama Phone users can’t expect to get the latest iPhone or Android, but they can get fully functional smartphones with similar functionalities.
5 Ways the Obama Phone Can Help
1. Communicate with Doctor and Other Medical Professionals
Making appointments with medical professionals is much easier with access to a smartphone that allows users to search for a required number. It can also facilitate speaking with a doctor over the phone or reaching on call medical professionals to answer urgent questions.
Many of the low income individuals who qualify for Obama Phone also qualify for other government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These insurance providers will send text message reminders about checkups and preventative care that would be otherwise impossible to receive without a cell phone. Obama phones are especially important in rural areas where phone communication with a doctor might be more common than an in-person checkup. There are also many elderly individuals with a household income providing eligibility for an Obama Phone. Having a phone for these individuals could mean getting more of the care they need at their advanced age.
2. Communicate with Employers to Find a Job
Obama Phone users can have an easier time locating a job. Mobile phones allow them to search for jobs, apply for jobs, and contact prospective employers. If they need to use a public facility like a library for printing out a resume or attending a workshop, a phone can become a useful tool for reaching out to a prospective employer.
If an Obama Phone user is on their way to an interview and will for some reason not arrive on time, they can reach out to their prospective employer and let them know, which can facilitate a better impression than showing up late without warning. A Lifeline subscriber can also use their phone to have an easier time contacting multiple potential places of employment or reaching out to recruiters to further their job search, something they could not do without a phone.
3. Make Emergency Phone Calls
Contacting medical professionals is much easier with a cell phone, especially outside of the home when you’re on the go. Cell phone users can also contact the police and the fire department for imminent safety concerns. Having a cell phone versus needing to seek out someone with a cell phone or locate a landline can literally be the difference between life and death. In homes where there is no land line because of the expense associated with having one, the Obama Phone becomes an essentially crucial piece of technology for security reasons.
4. Connect with Family Members
Cell phones make it easier to stay in touch with family members. With texting capabilities, family members can stay in touch all day without needing to make an actual call, the time commitment of which can sometimes prevent individuals from picking up the phone. For family members who don’t have a landline because they can’t afford it, reaching them would be next to impossible if they didn’t have some sort of subsidized mobile device.
It is important to note that the Obama Phone program only grants one Obama Phone per household. You cannot have multiple subscribers leveraging the same tax return or proof of state benefits. That said, in many low income households, even having just one phone makes a huge difference and opens up possibilities for communicating with family members and friends. The upshot of this ability to communicate and socialize can also be linked to improved states of mental health.
5. Close opportunity gaps
Low income households often don’t have computers or internet access, which makes it harder for children in these homes to do their homework or keep up with their peers. This is also an issue for students in high school and college, who can’t access necessary information for more complex research projects on the internet. Fortunately, the cheap internet wifi connection provided by an Obama Phone can facilitate their internet usage, bridging gaps in educational tech resources that are often taken for granted.
The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has praised the Obama Phone program for helping low income Hispanic households find employment and connectivity easier. These opportunity gaps have become even more glaring in recent times as the COVID pandemic has forced many school districts to conduct remote learning. Students in homes that could not get an Obama Phone would, in many cases, literally not be able to go to school.
History of the Obama Phone
The story of Obama Phone actually begins before the 44th president of the United States. In the 1980s, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) under President Ronald Reagan created the Universal Access Initiative to subsidize landline phone services for Americans living below the poverty level.
In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law, to facilitate access to advanced telecom services—and advanced in those days meant cell phones. George W. Bush continued the program, and it proliferated under the Obama administration, hence its popular nickname.
Like any government program, there has been some myth-making around the Lifeline benefit plan. Rumors have circulated that poor people are getting free government cell phones at taxpayer expense. In actuality, though welfare recipients hold eligibility to receive a free cell phone, Obama Phones are not provided directly by the government like Medicaid or food stamps, and the phones are not a government assistance program funded by taxpayer contribution. However, SNAP and Medicaid eligibility often automatically qualifies a low income person to get a free phone.
Everyone who pays for service with a phone company automatically contributes a small percentage of their phone bill to something called the Universal Service Fund. This fund then bankrolls a process of providing a subsidy to dozens of the telecommunications companies who provide telephone service to lifeline subscribers. Lifeline applicants must show that their household income grants them eligibility to enjoy Lifeline service. It must be no more than 150% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. They can indicate their income by showing pay stubs or tax returns. In some states, they can sign a document testifying that they participate in SNAP benefits or Medicaid, or bring in documentation showing as much.
The idea of the Obama Phone occurred long before President Obama. Even as far back as the 1930s, during the Great Depression, there was discussion around the need for a universal phone service. The debate was tied into a larger conversation about telecommunications monopolies and whether they were detrimental or beneficial to the ultimate goal of keeping America connected. At that time, AT&T was the only company capable of creating a national telecom network.
Fast forward to today, and consumers have dozens of options to choose from. These companies are required to give 21% of their revenue to the Universal Service Fund for the purpose of creating a telecom subsidy that can keep the country connected. Debate has been ongoing about how (and if) these principles should apply to broadband internet, and it will be interesting to see where it all goes as wireless get more powerful (such as 5G), powering a range of interconnected devices (commonly known as the internet of things) that may become increasingly crucial in our economy.
What About Landline Phones?
Mobile phones are easier to subsidize because the hardware is much cheaper. Landlines require miles and miles of cable that must be installed in order to connect residences and businesses into the network. By contrast, the only thing a cell phone provider needs is a network of cellular towers. In the future, it is likely that all they will need are satellites. Additionally, cell phone programs are easier for the service provider to cap off the minutes—for example, most Obama Phone providers cap off the monthly usage at 250 minutes of call time.
The Obama Phone
Though the Obama Phone was not created by the Obama administration, the years of his presidency saw a large uptick in cell phone usage as consumers switched from primarily using landline phones to cell phones. Accompanying this trend was a subsidized effort to provide more low-income Americans with mobile phone plans, to close opportunity gaps and facilitate a better quality of life. If you are eligible for the Obama Phone, it’s definitely a program worth looking into so you can attain these important benefits.