Bridge Card abusers, beware — an end to fraudulent food assistance may be near. State Rep. David Agema (R-Grandville), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of Human Services, is looking to end Bridge Card abuse among college students. But legislators should be cautious when placing restrictions on a program that helps more than 1 million Michigan residents annually. While the state should further investigate the consequences of alleged Bridge Card abuse, students and retailers must act responsibly and stop abusing the welfare program.

Reports released by the DHS state that 10,000 to 18,000 Michigan college students were receiving up to $200 a month in food assistance from the state during the 2009-2010 school year, according to a Feb. 1 article in the Lansing State Journal. Agema and other legislators are growing concerned that a large portion of Bridge Card users have found loopholes in the application and are cashing in on unneeded state assistance, though lawmakers don’t know the exact number of abusers. Other proposals capping welfare benefits have been introduced in the last month in an effort to decrease the $1.8 billion budget deficit the state faces the next fiscal year.

Before students apply for a Bridge Card, they should remember that the purpose of the program is to assist low-income families, not to pay for unnecessary products. Just because a loophole exists, doesn’t mean that it should be exploited. When students take advantage of the program, they’re taking money away from one of the most economically depressed states in the country. In addition to wasting taxpayer dollars, abuse destroys the credibility of a Bridge Card program that millions of Michigan residents rely on to pay for essentials.

Retailers must also be responsible when it comes to Bridge Card use and shouldn’t view the program as a way to gain customers. According to state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D–Detroit), grocery stores across Michigan are encouraging college students to apply for the program simply to boost their own sales. While this may seem like a harmless promotion to retailers, urging students who may not need the card to apply comes at the expense of the less fortunate who will suffer if the program is slashed.

While legislators plan their sting operation against fraudulent card users, they should consider changing the procedure to apply for the Bridge Card. According to Agema, allowing applicants to apply online instead of visiting a local DHS office makes it easier for students to get Bridge Cards they don’t need. Other lawmakers have claimed that the simplicity of the application allows students to lie about their financial situation. Lawmakers should consider adding eligibility criteria for the program. There needs to be a system in place that limits abuse, while still allowing those who need the card — including college students — to have access to aid.

When it comes to putting an end to Michigan’s food fraud, students, retailers and lawmakers need to act ethically and make sure that those who need help — not those who can work the system — are getting it.

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