Recipients on Taxpayers' Dime
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
In Pennsylvania, two programs offer free cell phones and 250 monthly minutes to people receiving government support such as Medicaid or food stamps: Assurance Wireless and SafeLink from Tracfone Wireless, which specializes in "no-contract" cellular service. The federal Universal Service Fund, which all telecommunications providers support as required by federal law, pays for the programs.
Amy Storey, a spokeswoman for CTIA - The Wireless Association in Washington, said all U.S. wireless carriers charge consumers a fee to recover the cost of their contribution to the fund, which varies quarterly as determined by the Federal Communications Commission.
Assurance Wireless, which is in 26 states and Washington, DC, started in Pennsylvania in February and is now being publicized in newspaper, TV and radio ads. The company reports more than 5.5 million people could qualify for the program in Pennsylvania. Gary Carter, manager of national partnerships for Assurance, was not able to provide the exact number of people who have signed up.
SafeLink, which has been available to Pennsylvanians for three years, is in 39 states. Spokesman Jose Fuentes could not provide an exact number of users in Pennsylvania, but said there are more than 2 million nationwide.
"The program is about peace of mind," Carter said. "It is a right to have peace of mind."
Critics of the program say free cell service is no right, particularly in an unstable economic climate.
Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said that with $910 billion of the national budget slated for low-income assistance, he finds free cell phone programs "particularly wasteful and unnecessary."
"Our society cannot afford to give free everything to everybody," he said. "Most poor people already had adequate telephone service and will continue to do so."
George Loewenstein, economics and psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said phone companies could lose money from the programs if customers seek free service when they otherwise might have found a way to pay for it...
Assurance and SafeLink get $10 per subscriber monthly from the Universal Service Fund, which covers the cost of 250 minutes, said Carter. The companies pay for the phones, which Carter describes as "very simplistic models, not smartphones." The primary handset for Assurance users is the Kyocera Jax, which retails for about $10. That model does not have a camera, MP3 player or Bluetooth capability.
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Editor's Note: We would like to see the citation to the Bill of Rights that denotes the right to "peace of mind." We know that the inalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness are enshrined, but we haven't seen anything about cellphones. This is a perfect example of how the federal government wastes money under the guise of "helping the poor."
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