In these hard economic times, state legislators have had to make tough choices on how to save money. In many cases, they have made mistakes — like the decision to cut the Michigan Promise Scholarship, hurting thousands of students who are trying to pay for college. But it’s also important to acknowledge the fact that some college students are hurting the state by unfairly taking advantage of a welfare program called the Michigan Bridge Card. This program is intended for people who are struggling to make ends meet. The state should end the widespread fraud taking place under the program, and students, for their part, shouldn’t take money they don’t need.

The Michigan Bridge Card is part of the Electronic Benefit System, a program that allows the state to provide direct financial assistance to citizens who qualify for it. The card provides people who are struggling to make ends meet with $200 a month to help pay for groceries. According to the Detroit Free Press, an estimated 1.2 million Michigan residents were issued cards as of December 2008.

The problem is that the program lacks oversight mechanisms to prevent recipients from buying things other than food, leaving enforcement up to individual stores. In 2008, it was estimated that Bridge Card fraud amounted to more than $300 million each year. And as the State News reported in September, some of this is due to the actions of college students, who exploit loopholes to qualify for the card and then make unauthorized purchases.

It’s obvious that the program needs a system for more fairly determining the eligibility of Bridge Card applicants. By declaring dependency status and not specifying work-study income, financial aid or scholarships, many students who don’t need the money can qualify. And due to poor enforcement, they can use the money to buy things other than food. Misused, the Bridge Card becomes a liability, costing the state more than $25 million a year. Michigan already has difficulty affording the programs it needs. The state must fix the Bridge Card program so that only those who are truly struggling can apply for it.

But just because it’s easy to cheat the system doesn’t mean college students should. Students who didn’t need the money but went for it anyway just because they knew they would qualify are behaving irresponsibly. The Bridge Card should not be viewed as no-strings-attached free cash. Students should be demonstrating that they are mature, responsible adults who are ready to make their own decisions — not childishly waiting to cash in on welfare schemes. Behaving in such a manner is morally wrong.

The state has a responsibility to take care of those who have fallen on hard times, and welfare programs are a necessary way of helping the least fortunate. But the sad reality is that when welfare programs are taken advantage of, the truly needy are the ones who suffer. Legislators could use the widespread greed of certain college students as an excuse to reduce the program or cut it entirely. Michigan’s poorest will be the ones who come away harmed, all because certain people couldn’t say no to money they didn’t need.

Some Republicans in the state House of Representatives are calling for an audit of the program. The government should move to tighten eligibility and cut down on luxury purchases while making absolutely certain not to reduce the accessibility of this program to those who need it.

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