The Universal Service Fund provides discounts on phone services, or in some cases, entirely free services to low-income Americans. The fund helps pay for landlines or cell phones, whichever the recipient prefers. There’s also a one-time discount of up to $30 to cover an installation fee or a cell phone. Considering how cheap some cell phones are nowadays, the money more than covers the costs of a basic phone. Then, the fund covers phone bills to the tune of $10 a month, which typically translates as 250 minutes for wireless plans of the types of phones we’re talking about. Americans who receive food stamps, Medicaid, or other federal aid, or who earn up to 135% of the federal poverty guidelines, qualify for the program.
Now, Bloomberg Businessweek reports, we have a pretty good idea of how much the program pays out — and how quickly it’s growing as more and more people find out about it. In 2011, Lifeline paid out $1.6 billion, more than double the amount paid in 2008 ($772 million).