Michigan Bridge Card Backlash

This is an opinion piece. All opinions and viewpoints are my own.

Last week I saw some news regarding a proposed Michigan bill that seeks to ban residents who use a Bridge Card from purchasing pop, and it struck a chord.

First, let me clarify some things for those of you unfamiliar with some background information:

  • Michiganders don’t say “soda.” It’s pop, and saying otherwise is sacrilege.
  • In Michigan, you pay an additional 10-cent deposit for every purchased bottle or can of pop. This includes singles and packs of six, 12, and 24. Beer and even some wine brands have deposits as well. Ten cents may seem like a lot, but consumers receive that dime back if they return the container to stores including WalMart, Meijer, and Kroger. Some party stores (liquor/beer stores for you out-of-staters who don’t know another term of Michigan lingo) even accept empties. It helps the environment, is an incentive for recycling, and it almost feels like you’re being given free money, even though you’re simply getting it back.
  • A Bridge Card (EBT) works like a debit card and is given to Michigan residents who need assistance purchasing food, and those residents must make under a certain amount of income per year depending on the household size. How much financial assistance one receives each month is based on the financial situation of everyone in the household. The money on the cards is funded by the state and there is an in-depth application and clarification process that takes place before a person is given a card.  As of 2016, the maximum monthly allotment an individual could receive was $194, but most don’t receive that amount.
  • Food assistance through a Bridge Card is only that: food assistance. Toiletries, feminine products, vitamins, pet supplies, and other items cannot be purchased using that money. The type of food covered, however, is not regulated.

Yet.

This proposed bill, written by Republican Beau LaFave, was constructed because clerks in his district (located in the Upper Peninsula) have alerted him to Bridge Card holders purchasing an inexpensive off-brand of pop, dumping the contents, and returning the container to receive the cash deposit, which they can use to spend on other items such as tobacco products, alcohol, and street drugs. If passed by the state House, Senate, and governor, pop would no longer be allowed using EBT funds.

Although it’s one of the most unhealthy beverages, I’m an avid pop drinker. I don’t care for water, hate the diluted taste of flavored water, and I find milk disgusting on its own. Coffee is gross. Juice is more expensive than pop by volume, and I get sick of it easily. Besides pop, I will purchase Snapple, Powerade, or Arizona’s half tea-half lemonade.

Now, I understand some of the concern about abusers of the system. I do. But first let me say, as a current Bridge Card holder myself, I’m a bit offended to be lumped into a category of the tiny, tiny minority that actually does what LaFave is trying to stop. Penalizing everyone else for actions of a few should not be allowed.

Not only that, the math doesn’t add up. Pop is a pricey beverage, and to spend roughly $4 for a 12-pack you would receive $1.20 back in deposits. I don’t know the cost of drugs, but I assume it would take a lot of deposit dimes to collect enough money to fund a drug habit, even if one spends their entire Bridge Card allotment on pop. In an MLive article, LaFave mentioned EBT abusers were dumping and collecting after buying Shasta, a brand a pop that costs 25 cents per can and is typically found in dollar stores in regions of the state. However, there’s no evidence of how many people are doing this, and it’s hard for me to believe enough individuals are abusing the system to the extent that it makes a difference in the grand scheme of things. You’re not seeing men and women purchasing hundreds of cans of Shasta to get $5 back.

I’d be willing to bet most people who have to use Bridge Cards use them honestly, and would rather make more money each year than have to depend on limited assistance. I know I would, and I’d be able to spend more money each month on food than what the state gives me. In addition, if card holders do receive bottle return money, its likely they use the cash to help purchase the items I mentioned above that aren’t covered by the card. Even off-brand, non-grocery essentials are expensive! Have you seen the price of toilet paper and laundry detergent?!

As local media shares the news of the bill on social, obviously people weigh in and comment on the posts. Most are completely insensitive, and unfortunately that’s what many people are these days. Comment after comment slams those who use the cards, assuming we’re all taking advantage of the aid because we’re too lazy to find a job. Or we’re drunks and drug addicts. No good, self-respecting person with initiative to improve themselves should need a Bridge Card.

Some individuals don’t care about the bottle deposit problem, but believe those who use Bridge Cards should only be able to purchase healthy food with it. OK…so what’s “healthy” and who defines it? Tons of grocery items such as cereal and other breakfast items, juice, canned goods, breads, condiments, and even meats have an excess of sugar, salt, fat, and chemicals or preservatives that would be considered unhealthy. So would “healthy food” just mean raw, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables? A vegetarian or vegan diet? Organic or all-natural items?

And regulating what is considered “healthy” isn’t the only problem. Foods like produce, organic meats, and dairy substitutes, are much more expensive than other food items found in the aisle. So people who wish for Bridge Cards to only pay for these types of groceries better be content to allow more funds on each card. I doubt they would be. Processed, packaged foods are much cheaper, allowing someone using a card to get more bang for their buck, even if it’s not the healthiest item to consume. I’d rather see someone have an unhealthy meal than go without one.

Another issue is shelf (or fridge) life. Most of what is generally considered healthy, like produce, for example, doesn’t last long, even when frozen. Packaged and processed foods last longer, which means those living on food assistance won’t be throwing their money away when their purchases spoil and will assure a meal on the table that night.

Farmers markets, which usually accept EBT, are a fantastic choice for card holders to get a great deal on those healthier produce items while supporting local farmers and growers. However, in Michigan, most markets usually only last from May through October, leaving a huge gap of time where it’s not an option.

Others have the audacity to complain about what types of food people are buying off of “their tax dollars.” Yeah? Well I pay taxes too, and shouldn’t be ridiculed for what I place in my cart, regardless of nutritional value.

Last but not least, what about plain ‘ole human rights? Using aid or not, individuals should be free to live their own lives, healthy or unhealthy. Bridge Card holders should be entitled to all grocery items without being judged like those fortunate enough to not need assistance. Maybe EBT users should criticize non users who have more money and still buy that “unhealthy” food when they have the funds to purchase those more expensive “healthy” items.

This is my take: if the deposit is the problem, why not have the bill exclude the deposit from Bridge Cards? In my opinion, that makes more sense and is a fair option for everyone.

If passed, this proposed bill that bans Bridge Card holders from buying pop could be the start of other rules regarding what people can and can’t buy using state assistance, and most of me can’t agree with that. Government sticks their noses into people’s lives enough, claiming “they know best.” I think it’s way past time to stop.

—K

About Karin

Journalist, singer, reader, movie fanatic, photography buff, GVSU alum, wanna-be-Brit, Crohn's fighter, Coca-Cola addict, animal lover, not a kid person, hater of winter, Michigander
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2 Responses to Michigan Bridge Card Backlash

  1. Lauren says:

    I agree with you, this is an overstep in trying to regulate what Bridge card users can spend their benefits on. Plus – like you pointed out – the reason for introducing this bill in the first place is pretty flimsy.

    I really enjoyed this piece by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting looking at how welfare dollars are actually spent (https://www.revealnews.org/episodes/a-welfare-check/). Only a quarter of welfare dollars actually go to basic assistance, which makes worrying about this 10-cent deposit conspiracy seem so frivolous.

    • Karin says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Lauren! And thanks for that link to the piece on welfare dollars! Shines an entirely new aspect on everything.

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