Should the poor have cell phones?

It's a question that has engaged both ends of the political spectrum since 2004, when the conservative Heritage Foundation published a controversial paper saying the poor enjoy "high living standards" and cited as proof that many have cell phones, among other things.

In rebuttal, advocates for the poor have argued that cell phones are not luxuries but necessities, as basic to modern life as electricity.

Complicating the debate these days is a new development: free cell phones for the poor and working poor distributed by a Miami wireless company.

They're paid for, in part, by charges on phone bills that the federal government allows carriers to levy. It's a little-known collaboration between the federal government and phone carriers, devised by the Reagan administration 26 years ago.

TracFone Wireless began initiating the phone giveaway in 2008, dubbed by some "welfare wireless" service. It also offers 68 minutes of free talk a month. People who receive food stamps, welfare, or other government assistance can qualify by applying to the company.

Such people are within the range of 100 percent to 150 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that runs from $22,050 to $33,075 in salary.

The idea that just by paying their phone bills customers are underwriting free phones for the poor rankles people.

"Oh, that's the 'Obama-phone,' " said Susan Lord, a leader of the conservative tea party movement in South Jersey. "It's just another way to redistribute the wealth. The poor get helped, and the cost is passed on to working people, who get depressed."

Matthew Brouillette, president and chief executive officer of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, said his fear was that the free-phone program would be "subsidizing texting and sexting" among the poor.

The less well-off see things differently. "Most people use cell phones to find jobs to get off welfare, or for safety," said Tianna Gaines, 31, an impoverished Frankford woman who has received a free cell phone. She is a community college communications student.

"A lot of people can't afford a phone. The public should worry less about free cell phones and think more about the kids who go to sleep at night living in poverty," she said.

Whatever people think about the poor having cell phones, the devices are ubiquitous. Among U.S. adults living in poverty, about 73 percent have cell phones, according to a study released last month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 90 percent of all Americans own cell phones, various studies show.

At the People's Emergency Center homeless shelter in West Philadelphia, president Gloria Guard said half the people there one day last week had cells.

That the poor have cell phones is not as incongruous as it sounds, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

Because they don't require contracts and deposits, the cell phones - especially prepaid ones that allow customers to buy minutes when needed - are often cheaper than land lines, which is important for poor people whose credit is too battered to allow them more traditional phone service, she said.

Though the poor struggle each day, they are still consumers, which is why TracFone developed its giveaway service, known as SafeLink, industry experts say.

TracFone operates in 25 states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where it initiated service within the last year, said Jose Fuentes, director of government relations for the company. He declined to say how many phones had been distributed in the area.

Assurance Wireless, part of Sprint, also offers free phones, and it plans to be in Pennsylvania and New Jersey by the end of 2010, a company spokesman said.

Companies like TracFone are betting that low-income people will enjoy the free phones, get hooked on the limited free minutes, then want to buy more minutes, industry insiders say.

"It's a clever marketing tool," said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. "Once the minutes are up, customers will dig deeper to pay for more."

And because so many Americans already have cell phones, TracFone is compelled to "look at the poor as a possible market," said Roger Entner, head of telecommunications research at Nielsen, which studies market trends.

Though free phones are a new idea, the notion of the government's becoming involved to help the poor get phone service is not.

The federal Lifeline program, begun in 1984, requires phone companies to discount the bills of poor people up to $10 a month.

The Federal Communications Commission established a subsidy for carriers so they could recover those costs. Money for that subsidy comes from all phone customers, who pay a charge of up to $2 per monthly bill.

Under the administration of former President George W. Bush, TracFone and other wireless carriers were allowed to participate in what had been a wired-only program, industry experts say. TracFone changed the equation two years ago by offering discounted service and free cell phones.

To opponents, the government funding feels as though phone customers are being surreptitiously taxed, said Kevin Kelly, a leader of Loyal Opposition, a conservative Center City political group.

"This is theft masquerading as charity," he said. "If companies want to help the poor, they should take the money out of their own hides, not their customers'."

Beyond that, some say, the sight of the poor with cell phones simply doesn't sit well with some people, particularly older folks who aren't very familiar with cell phones anyway, said Marianne Bellesorte, director of policy at PathWays PA, a nonprofit advocacy group for poor women in Holmes, Delaware County.

She added that, in hard times, cells are vital. "During the recession, people lost their homes and had to live with others," Bellesorte said. "They need cell phones to stay in touch and to get jobs."

Beyond basic communication, cell phones help the poor in other ways.

Just last month, the Maternity Care Coalition, a Center City nonprofit working to improve maternal and child health, began a project to help poor expectant mothers.

The Text for Baby program, paid for by phone carriers, sends messages to new mothers' cell phones about nutrition, growth, and other issues coinciding with their babies' development.

Many shelters for battered women provide free cell phones to clients so they can stay in touch with people who can help them.

Anyone who has a problem with the poor having cell phones should just get used to it, says Tangela Fedrick, a 21-year-old welfare recipient who works part time in child care.

"People think I'm trying to get away with something," said Fedrick, who has a TracFone.

"Welfare case workers say to me, 'Oh, you've got a cell phone. You don't need welfare.' Ninety percent of the time, I have no minutes. I keep it if I have to call the cops, or if my kid's asthma gets bad and I need a doctor.

"Don't judge me before you know the facts."