Thousands of college students in Michigan may soon no longer be eligible to receive nearly $200 in federal tax money each month to buy food. While many students depend on the money for meals, for others this may just mean the elimination of superfluous purchases like late night pizza and caffeinated beverages.
The Michigan Department of Human Services will be cracking down on abuse of the Michigan Bridge Card program — which provides federally financed debit cards that can be used for food expenses — by establishing stricter qualification guidelines that will take effect April 1. Though state officials intend for the program to serve only those who are in need, others find the new regulations unwarranted.
Under the upcoming law, Michigan residents are eligible if they care for children, are physically or mentally unfit for employment or participate in job training. Additionally, federal officials will evaluate program applicants’ income and household size and will establish the amount of money an individual is eligible to receive.
Michigan DHS Director Maura Corrigan wrote in a Feb. 9 press release that the new restrictions on Bridge Card use will benefit those who need the financial support it provides.
“We’re ready to extend a helping hand to any citizen who is truly in need — including college students who care for young children and are taking the right steps toward becoming self-sufficient,” Corrigan wrote. “But those who don’t meet federal guidelines won’t be able to take advantage of what is meant to be a temporary safety net program.”
The Bridge Card program serves about 1.9 million Michigan residents, and DHS estimates that up to 20,000 of those users are students, according to DHS spokesman Christina Fecher.
The previous DHS administration had been following federal instructions for use of the money allocations, but the current administration requested to grant the state regulation rights when officials realized many students take advantage of the program, Fecher wrote in an e-mail interview.
The new state regulations are expected to eliminate many of those students from the program by removing eligibility of any student “attending college with an approved education plan,’” Fecher wrote.
State Rep. Dave Agema (R–Grandville), one of the first lawmakers to take action against abuse of the Bridge Card program, said the need for change became obvious when numbers demonstrated a vast increase in Michigan college students applying for financial assistance through the program.
“It went viral,” Agema said. “Too many people were asking to get on, and it drew our attention to it. In one county, two-thirds of the new people (applying for cards) were college students.”
While some legislators view the forthcoming restrictions on the program as an end to monetary waste, others think the move is a negative one.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said the law is likely to change before it is actually enforced. He added that the state may be moving in the wrong direction by focusing on abuse by college students only.
“I think that in a country that is the richest country in the world, and the most prosperous country in the history of humankind, it’s a shame that we’re trying to lower the ceiling rather than raise the floor,” Irwin said. “We’re trying to cut back on programs that help people. There are times when it gets abused whether (Bridge Card users) are college students or adults.”
But Agema said students who weren’t necessarily in dire need of food assistance were using the program, adding that the decrease in student use will allow for reallocation of millions of dollars through the Bridge Card program.
“It was too easy to get on, and it’s too easy to lie,” Agema said. “That’s why Indiana had almost no students on (food assistance support) and we had (thousands), on Bridge Card because some were coming from wealthy homes. People were getting a Bridge Card that weren’t financially needy and didn’t qualify by other standards.”
Students opposed to the new law include LSA senior Jennifer Zobel, who is fighting the changes with a petition she said she plans to take to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s office after she gets 20,000 signatures.
“My roommate and I started (the petition) because we think it’s unfair for the government to just target one group of people that utilize the Bridge Card,” Zobel said. “Instead of changing the (laws) to make it harder for everyone, they’re just (targeting) college students and that doesn’t seem right.”