The 'Obama Phone' Program Has Nothing to Do with Obama

For a few hours yesterday, the top link on the Drudge Report led to a YouTube video in which an Ohio woman said she's going to vote for President Obama because he gave her a phone. The woman is inarticulate and she speaks loudly, and on top of those things she's black. Basically, she is exactly the kind of person many on the right envision—wrongly, it should be said—when they think of who is guzzling from the government teat these days. That she was bragging about Obama giving "every minority in Cleveland" luxuries like cell phones was just the icing on the cake.

"Gorillas looking for gorilla phones," wrote one commenter under the video on YouTube. "Upset to see morons like this will be voting that moron in again," wrote another. "Woman probably has no idea what Obama or Romney stand for."

Actually, while she may have put it a bit—to borrow a word from Mitt Romney—"inelegantly," the woman in the video was indeed talking about a real government program that exists under Obama. And it's one that, if you take the time to actually understand it, you may very well support.

Though we can't be positive which government program the woman from the video is referencing without interviewing her, it does appear that she's talking about the FCC's Lifeline Assistance benefit. Owing to the fact that people generally need phones to apply for jobs and enroll their children in school, and elderly citizens need to be able to call their families and emergency services, the government decided in the '80s (under Ronald Reagan, no less) to institute the Lifeline Assistance program. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act into law, which offered either cell phones or landline services to low-income Americans.

Today, 38 states, one of which is Ohio, participate in the Lifeline program. If you live in one of those locales and your income is at or below 135 percent of the poverty line, or if you qualify for certain benefit programs like Medicaid and TANF, you can apply for a free cell phone that offers you 250 minutes of talk time per month. The people who are getting these phones aren't getting iPhones or other smartphones; they're often people in urban or rural areas who are being supplied with basic cell phones so they can call the hospital when they're sick, or receive calls if there's a problem with their child at school.

If you're upset that Obama is giving "freeloaders" gratis cell phones paid for with your tax money, don't be. Firstly, Obama had nothing to do with the Lifeline program: the "Obama phone" narrative is a myth that both liberals and conservatives have fallen for since 2009. Secondly, Lifeline isn't paid for with tax revenues. Rather, Lifeline is funded with a pool of money, called the Universal Service Fund, which is paid for with revenue donations from telecommunications providers. Some of those providers—like Verizon, for instance—pass off that cost to their customers with a Universal Service fee, but the government doesn't mandate that the money come from citizens, meaning it's technically not a tax.

It is sort of sad that the woman in Drudge's "Obama phone" video has no idea that her free cell phone has nothing to do with Obama. But conservatives who would try and hold her up as an example of a liberal president gone wild with handouts are just as sad and ignorant, and more cruel by a large margin.