The Federal Lifeline Plan is a program that has brought cell phones to millions of Americans who otherwise could not readily afford cell phone service. Thousands of people have been able to get care they needed, or were able to completely fill out a job application, due to having access to a free cell phone.

However, in these days of increased scrutiny of government programs, this program is not without its detractors and certainly not without its faults. However, we also live in the time of viral media, where a rumored whisper can snowball into a whirlwind of misleading information that quickly becomes fact in the public eye. The Lifeline Assistance Program is a lightning rod for such misinformation. Here are the 5 most common misconceptions about the program.

Myth #1 – There no such thing as a free phone, there must be some kind of catch!

Why is it believable?

It is hard to believe that free cell phones and free minutes could be given out absolutely free. Cell phones and plan minutes are expensive.  Some people have applied for phones and have been rejected, so they go away thinking the programs and the companies are involved in a scam.

The truth

This is one of the most easily-dispelled myths. The Lifeline Assistance program has helped several million people get free phones. Some people have been denied phones because they didn’t qualify or did not fill out the applications correctly. Some people have been disappointed with the service they have received by some of the companies. Be that as it may, the program does exist and hands out thousands of cell phones every month.

Myth# 2 – It’s the Obama phone!

Why is it believable?

Everyone has heard the term or seen the e-mail where a startled American can’t believe that the government is paying for cell phones for low-income Americans. The e-mail blamed President Barack Obama for starting the program since the plan to spread cell phone ownership to the poor and low-income community came into the public light around the same time of the new administration of the “socialist” President.

Is it true?

Not at all! The Federal Lifeline Plan was started in 1984 by the Federal Communication Commission. The goal at the time was to reduce the cost of landline service to those in rural areas, where the cost of service was relatively high. In April 2008, during the race for the White House, the plan was extended to allow for discounts on cell phones. President Obama was still a US Senator battling Hilary Clinton for the nomination at the time, so he could not have been responsible for the program.

Would it be fair to call it a Bush phone or even a Reagan phone, named after the Presidents that the plan was created and expanded under? Probably not, unless you believe that the presidents sign off on each and every government program that is created during their administrations.

Myth # 3 – This is an example of our tax dollars going to waste.

Why is it believable?

Over the past few years, we have heard quite a bit about government spending and the role it has on the economy.  We have seen our great country, the largest economy in the world almost default on its obligations and had its national credit rating cut for the very first time. Government spending is not just a problem here either. The world waits to see if Europe can get their accumulated debts in order. More than ever, people are demanding greater fiscal responsibility from their governments.

Whenever we see the term ‘free government cell phones’, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the government is paying for the program. And given many ways that the government has been rumored to waste money, it might be easy to believe that the US government is irresponsibly paying for cell phones amidst of all of its other fiscal problems. Not only that, but many of us have seen stories of abuse where people have collected 10, 20 or more free Lifeline phones. The very thought of our tax dollars, that should go to our schools or police, going to waste by providing someone with a bunch of free cell phones just makes us screaming mad.

Is it true?

Absolutely not! The Federal Lifeline Assistance program is NOT, nor has it ever been funded with tax dollars. Where does it get the money from? The program was meant to be funded by the telecommunications companies, who’d contribute a part of their income to pay for the program. Instead of retaining the costs, the companies tacked on a new fee to their customer bills. You see it on an existing bill as the Universal Service Fee (a fee is NOT a tax as some would have you believe, there is a distinct between the two concepts; look it up if you need further clarification). It is through that fee that the companies that provide free cell phones get their funding. The money is collected into the Universal Service Fund, where it is then distributed to the companies that provide Lifeline service.

It would be most correct to say that the program is government-supported, as it was created and made possible by the government, but it never EVER uses tax money.  Anyone who says it’s a taxpayer scam or even funded by taxpayers is either misinformed or trying to mislead.

Myth #4 – Programs like these are signs of the decline of America

Why is it believable?

The government seems like they are paying (not true, see myth #3) for cell phones, which appear to some as a luxury item. Many say “In my day, if we wanted something, we worked for it.” While we applaud that train of thought, is a government-sponsored program that provides a way to get free cell phones really the beginning for the end of America? Is the American government sponsoring a frivolous need?

Is it true?

Since the Great Depression, the United States has tried to provide all Americans with the means they need to get up and stay on their feet. The government has provided food and housing assistance to Americans as they have needed it. They have also found ways to help finance new homes and student loans, when the price of these objects became hard to manage for the average family. I don’t think many would say that any of these programs were a part of the decline in America.

Now, the US government has realized that having the ability to stay in touch is a basic need for all.  People, especially those with families, need instant communications to be alerted to emergencies or situations demanding immediate attention. Everyone should have access to services like 911, if needed. As time has passed, many people have replaced their home phones for ones they can carry with them at all times, as people are expected to be in constant reach. Cell phones are a cheap way of managing this need.

It is important to remember that the US government has not endeavored to put a cell phone in the hand of every American in the same way politicians promised “to put a chicken in every pot”. It is not that cell phone ownership is a right, but it is the ability to communicate, especially in case of emergencies, that no American should be without.

Admittedly, the way the program has been overseen has left much to be desired. There has been much publicized fraud and abuse in the program and things must be done to fix some of the problems. Many people have gotten more than one phone, and others have kept phones long after they no longer qualified for them. The good news is politicians in Washington have seen the problems with the program and are making changes, so resources are spent more efficiently and more deserving families can receive benefits. Please see our Overhaul page for more information.

Myth #5 – Free Government Phones are a tool by the government to spy on people.

Why is it believable?

In the aftermath of 9/11, the idea of privacy became a much-discussed and debated topic. The government gave itself greater powers to listen to the communications of people living in the country. With this in mind, and the idea that “…there is nothing free in this world…” have given rise to the idea that these phones could be used as tools to monitor the communications of their customers.

Is it true?

No. We admit that we do not any specific knowledge to the contrary; this myth doesn’t pass the sensibility test. First, it seems unlikely that the government would use a free government cell phone program to monitor terrorists, as these groups are usually well-funded and would not use a free phone program which leaves a traceable record when the phones are first obtained and has limited amounts of talk minutes. If considering the possibility that the government wants to eavesdrop on the low-income customers who would normally get these phones, it is hard to believe that the government would spend the money and effort to find people to monitor thousands of conversations in the hope that they hear something suspicious.

If you hear of anyone who still believes in any of these myths, be sure to point them to this article. Be sure to like, share or Tweet this page if you found it interesting!