Young people in California's foster system will get free cellphones and internet access under a unique program approved Thursday that supporters say will bridge a digital divide.
The California Public Utilities Commission passed the $22 million pilot program that will provide smartphones to more than 30,000 current and former foster youth between 13 and 26. The phones come with an unlimited calling plan, wireless service and mobile hotspot.
The program, supported by the cell carrier Boost Mobile and the California-based national nonprofit iFoster, is expected to launch within about eight weeks.
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Officials said it's the first of its kind in the nation. It's an extension of LifeLine, a program run by the utilities commission that provides affordable communications services for low-income residents in the state.
Serita Cox, iFoster's CEO, said children in the foster system — and those who age out of it at 21 — are often much less digitally connected than their peers. And young adults formerly in the system face high levels of unemployment and homelessness, which is why the benefits extend to 26, Cox said.
It will give them crucial access to potential employers, government benefits and loved ones while they make the leap into adulthood, she said.
"There's a huge digital divide. A lot of these young people are completely disconnected, especially those in rural areas," Cox said. "The primary purpose is to get them on the grid."
Angelina Medina, a 20-year-old college student, said she frequently has had to shut off her phone because she couldn't afford to pay the bill. Because of that, she's missed out on part-time jobs at fast food restaurants and coffee shops because her only point of contact was email, said Medina, who has been in the foster system since she was 6.
"If you don't have a phone number, they don't even bother trying to contact you," she said of potential employers.
Medina said she'll make frequent use of her new phone when she applies for a full-time job after she graduates from California State University, Northridge with a degree in environmental occupational health.
In addition to the cellphones and internet access, the program will partner with the state's 50 county welfare departments for digital literacy training. The classes will teach online safety, effective social media use and how to present professionally for potential employment, Cox said.
The program is unique to California, said Cox, but iFoster hopes to replicate in other states.
LifeLine is funded by the Universal Service Fund tax paid by every cellphone user as part of the monthly bill.