For those who qualify and who only need a cell phone for emergency situations, you may be able to get a cell phone and monthly allowance of minutes for free. A company called SafeLink Wireless is offering this in several states and it will soon expand to others. (Check their website for availability in your location).
SafeLink (owned by the same people that market TracFone), is made possible by a government program (funded by the Universal Service Fees you see on most phone bills) that provides lower income households with discounts to make telecom service more affordable.
SafeLink’s website says the program provides a free cell phone and a number of free minutes each month, that varies by state. We sampled a few Zip Codes, and usually found that they provide a little over an hour of free talk time each month. It appears that if you stay within that allocation of minutes, there are no charges whatsoever. For those wanting to talk more, TracFone airtime cards can be purchased and used.
UPDATE 10/27/09: For those interested in this service, click the link for Safelink Wireless. That is the best place to see if you qualify and/or if this service is available where you live.