Michigan Republicans target out-of-state use of food assistance card
Republican Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) and Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville) used their Facebook pages in the past week to draw attention to Bridge card holders withdrawing cash from out of state locations. The implication from the posts is that the withdraws are violating state law.
On his Facebook page, Jones said, “I have just discovered that bridge cards are being used in Florida, California, Nevada, Hawaii, and cruise ships. In January and February tax payers paid for 2 million dollars so that bridge card users could go on vacation!”
Agema, on his own Facebook account, wrote, “Just thought you ought to know – your Michigan Bridge cards for food were used in Florida from Dec-March of this year equaled about $2 million. It’s truly a great country when the poor can winter in Florida. California and Nevada were also hot spots. Even some in Hawaii! WOW What a country of abuse against taxpayers!”
In an e-mail to Michigan Messenger, Jones says his information came directly from Department of Human Services. “I have talked with DHS and confirmed that bridge cards were used in Hawaii, Nevada, California, and Florida and also cruise ships,” he said. “In January and February alone it is 2 million dollars!!! I will be working with the new director to fix the legacy of Granholm who allowed this to run unchecked.”
Jones also went public with his concerns, telling the Detroit News about the out of state spending. “The abuse of tax dollars must stop,” he said.
But Brian Rooney, director of policy and compliance at DHS, says the Republican lawmakers’ Facebook statements don’t present the whole truth.
First, the claim that someone used a Bridge card on a cruise ship is simply false. “It’s not correct,” Rooney said. “That happened in Missouri.”
Secondly, Rooney points out, there is no prohibition on those receiving benefits from using them in other states. In fact, he says, there are a myriad of possible reasons the benefits might accessed in another state — including job searches, relative visits and military families.
Rooney was unable to give a clear picture on how much money was being used in other states, saying that the department was in the process of reviewing it at that point. He did, however, note that if a person is receiving benefits from Michigan, but is out of state for more than 30 days, the benefits are legally stopped because the person is no longer considered a Michigan resident.
On top of that, Rooney says, the department is instituting two new computer programs which will allow the state to see if a person is getting benefits in other states — which is fraud — or if they are cheating the system by getting benefits from Michigan but living somewhere else.
Michigan is not the only state where lawmakers are raising such concerns. In Missouri, law makers and media outlets are making similar claims. But an editorial in the St. Louis Post Dispatch analyzed the data from that state:
The only way to get to $11.83 million in “welfare benefits” over three months is by including food stamps as “welfare.” Almost one in six Missourians depends on food stamps, which pay about $1.40 per meal.
Food stamps make up the largest part of public benefits — by far. In January 2011, a typical month, according to a Department of Social Services spokesman, $119 million in federal food stamp assistance was distributed by the state of Missouri.
Of this, less than 3 percent, $3.5 million, was spent out of state, with $2.6 million spent in bordering states.
Food stamp benefits can’t be cashed out at an ATM. They can be spent only on food, and not on liquor, cigarettes or pet food. There’s no fixed residency requirement, and households receiving food stamp benefits may have good reasons to use them across state lines.
The same is true for payments under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, created by the 1996 federal welfare overhaul. Missouri households participating in the program receive an average monthly cash grant of $239, which can be accessed through many ATMs.
Missouri distributed $10.2 million in TANF benefits in January, again, a typical month. Of this amount, just 3.5 percent, $362,682, was spent out of state, with $251,631 spent in bordering states. One percent, $111,051, of TANF benefits was spent in non-bordering states. There were six cash withdrawals in Nevada and one in Hawaii, totaling less than $1,000.
Neal Rubin had a similar column in the Detroit News responding to Jones’ claims, arguing that some Republicans simply “want the poor to suffer.” He writes, “In the grand scheme of things, the $1 million spent on food out of state was peanuts: about one-fifth of 1 percent of the $520 million in food assistance for the first two months of the year. No one is using FAP at four-star restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip; the cards are programmed to work only in places approved by the federal government.”
Advocates for the poor in Michigan agree that real abuse of the system should be stopped, but that the mere assumption that any use of a Bridge card out of state is illegitimate is false and creates unnecessary stigma for those who receive benefits.
“We don’t want to defend anyone who is abusing the system, but these numbers don’t really prove anything. It seems more like a rush to judgment as part of an ongoing campaign to demonize poor people,” says Michigan League for Human Services spokesperson Judy Putnam. “It would make sense that people receiving benefits who live near our borders might be buying food over a state line and spending money ‘out of state.’ In Missouri, where similar claims were made, it was found that most of the out-of-state spending was near borders and the amount spent in ’vacation hotspots’ was minuscule.”