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.