California OKs Free and Cheap Cell Phone Options for Low-income, Foster Youths

The California Public Utilities Commission has signed off on expanding the state’s emergency phone plan to include wireless devices. It is a move that will provide access to cell phones for many low-income young adults, including current and former foster youths.

Under the new expansion, anyone between 18 and 26 on MediCal or receiving CalWorks benefits will have access to a free cell phone plan, which will include up to 1,000 minutes of monthly talk time and limited texting.

The Affordable Care Act requires that foster youth gain in-state Medicaid eligibility until age 26, which means nearly all youths aging out or staying in foster care after age 18 would qualify.

“Foster Youth can’t afford cell phones so they go with prepaid plans when they can and then lose service,” said Serita Cox, executive director of the group iFoster. “They have no way to stay connected to their support networks.”

Low-cost plans ranging from $5 to $8 per month, featuring unlimited monthly minutes and texting, will also be available.

Just this fall, Cox and other advocates for foster youth lined up against a more elaborate plan to expand the states LifeLine, which until now has dealt only with landline phones. That version of the plan included conversion to a voucher system, which would have eliminated fixed rates for the LifeLine wireless services.

LifeLine is a program in each state, financed in part by the federal government, through which telephone providers offer low-income households a subsidized phone plan that permits for (at the least) emergency calls and a certain amount of local calling.

Each “household” is allowed to have one LifeLine participant, which means that most aging-out foster youths are eligible. As more states have included cell phone services in LifeLine, the cost of the program at the federal program has ballooned, to the dismay of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other spending hawks on Capitol Hill.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of the Chronicle of Social Change.

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