Special Report: Bridge Cards And College Kids

By: Lauren Zakalik Email
By: Lauren Zakalik Email

Twenty-one-year-old Joe Wisney is going to school to become a teacher. A goal great in theory, expensive in practice.

"I pay for LCC out of my pocket. I don't have any loans, so that's another $100 a month," he says.

Not to mention rent, utilities, food and some fun, running him hundreds of dollars a month with virtually no help from Mom and Dad. He says his state-issued bridge card, which gives him $200 a month for food, is his saving grace.

"If I didn't have this bridge card, I wouldn't be able to live in this apartment. I'd probably be living at home, commuting to school every day," Wisney says.

Besides being enrolled in school, requirements for a bridge card include employment, doing work study, or unable to work. The Deparment of Human Services says out of the 1.9 million Michiganders who used food assistance in 2009, a growing portion are college students aged 18 to 22.

"In fiscal year 2009, anywhere between 10,000 and 17,600 students were receiving food assistance. That's roughly less than 1 percent of all the money being used in that traditional category," says Edward Woods, DHS spokesman.

There's no doubt the face of the needy has changed in the past few years, and that now includes college students. But with nearly 18,000 college students potentially using bridge cards, some-- like Rep. Rick Jones-- say it's an abuse of the system.

"I was told by one student, 'My buddy said don't bother bringing anything for the tailgate. I have my bridge card, I can get all the food we need,'" Jones recalls.

Jones, (R) Grand Ledge, has been a vocal opponent of college students using bridge cards. He says he understands some students may have a legitimate need, but when he hears stories like these, he gets enraged.

"They get a card, there's $200 on it," Jones says. "They go out on the street and see how much they can get for it. Now they have cash-- they turn right around and buy alcohol, illegal drugs."

One Facebook group doesn't do much to help the cause. It's called "iI Love My Bridge Card." Its motto? "Feasting like kings, with more money for alcohol." It has a picture of kids posing with their bridge cards, and a link to apply for one.

"It upsets me because hardworking families produce the taxes that pay for these benefits," Jones says. "This isn't play money, it's taxpayers' money."

Woods says that's hearsay.

"We like to deal with facts. Is there a study? Or evidence that suggests those activities? To sit here and say they don't happen-- that's not true. But is it widespread and how often? We really don't know," Woods says.

For its part, Woods says Michigan de-qualifies more people off food assistance than any other state. And while DHS receives up to 1,000 reports of fraud a month, they take fraud very seriously. They have a team dedicated to investigating it.

"If we changed our policy or the way we do business for every alleged story we have, we would not be fiscally responsible," he says.

Wisney says he's heard the bridge card horror stories:

"I've heard some people go to Meijer-- they say 'I'll buy you $100 of groceries if you give me $50 cash,'" he says.

But he says he and his friends who use bridge cards do so out of need, not to abuse the system.

"I think that could ruin it for people like us."

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