(YAHOO) Last year, a federal program paid out $1.6 billion to cover and the monthly bills of 12.5 million wireless accounts. The program, overseen by the and intended to help low-income Americans, is popular for obvious reasons, with participation rising steeply since 2008, when the government paid $772 million for phones and monthly bills. But observers complain that the program suffers from poor oversight, in which phones go to people who don't qualify, and hundreds of thousands of those who do qualify have more than one phone.
Last summer, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story shed some light on a government program that relatively few Americans knew existed. (Read more about it here.) The Lifeline program provides low-income Americans with free cell phones (basic ones such as those made by Tracfone, not smartphones) and covers up to 250 free minutes each month. As many as 5.5 million residents in Pennsylvania alone could qualify for the program, which is funded primarily by the fee added to the bills of land-line and wireless customers.