FCC changes Lifeline eligibility rules: Who are the winners? And who are the losers?

Bureaucrats being bureaucrats, the FCC doesn’t say it has “changed” the rules of the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program. No, it says they’ve been “streamlined.” But this small difference in words will make a life-shaking difference to Lifeline customers who lose their free government cell phones because those rules have been “streamlined.”

Here’s the bottom line in plain English: The FCC has eliminated a number of ways needy Americans have always used to qualify and introduced one very important new way to qualify. The new rules make winners some Lifeline customers and make losers out of others.

The winners

Beginning December 2, 2016, you can qualify for an Obama Phone if you receive:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
  • the Veterans Pension benefit will be eligible to receive Lifeline.
  • Low-income consumers may also still qualify if their household income is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.(EDITOR’S NOTE: The definition of income has changed slightly to align with the Internal Revenue Service’s definition of “gross income” to limit the use of this method of qualifying. Those definitions are so technical in nature that we will not bother to explain them at this point.)

Of course, some states still allow Lifeline customers to qualify with even higher incomes, such as 150% of Federal Poverty Guidelines Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas. Nevada permits you to qualify with a household income up to 175% of those same guidelines. California allows you to qualify with a household income as much as 218%. And depending on whether you’re 65 or older, Vermont may allow you household income to be as much as 234%.

Tribal eligibility

Rather than walking into any regulatory minefields that might have impacted eligibility of Native Americans in the Lifeline Assistance, the FCC decided to leave these regulations unchanged.

Native Americans can qualify for special Lifeline Assistance discounts if at least one person in their household participates in one of the following assistance programs:

  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance (BIA)
  • Tribally Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tribal TANF)
  • Tribal Head Start (only those households meeting its income qualifying standard)
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)

Who are the losers?

The FCC has eliminated the following programs that have in the past been used to qualify for Lifeline Assistance:

  • Low–Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • National School Lunch Program’s free lunch program (NSLP)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • All state-specified Lifeline eligibility criteria for Lifeline (such as California’s Women, Infants and Children Program; Georgia’s Senior Citizen Low-Income Discount Plan; or Rhode Island’s Pharmaceutical Assistance to Elderly. In order to simplify the program and make it consistent from state-to-state, those and many other state-implemented ways to qualify have been eliminated.

According to the FCC’s theory, these changes will cause minimal inconvenience for Lifeline customers because the vast majority of Lifeline enrollees qualify by participating in just three programs — SNAP, Medicaid, and SSI.


We’re willing to take a wait-and-see attitude because we know our readers will light up our comment section if the FCC’s assumption turns out to be false.