By Aaron Fishell
In early 2011, a student at Western Michigan University had just moved into her first off-campus apartment and while her job covered her rent and utilities, there was little if any money left over to pay for food.
On the advice of her friend, Krista Robenson applied for federal food assistance. She was granted a Bridge Card for food. For several months, Robensen lived without worrying about paying for the week’s groceries. But in April of that year, a state clarification to the federal guidelines meant that college students began to have to work 20 hours a week or have a child under age 6 in order to be eligible for food assistance.
“I would say if I didn’t have a Bridge Card when I did have one, I’d probably be struggling financially as I am now,” Robenson says.
The adjustments to the Bridge Card requirements went into effect almost two years ago. Since then, it seems that those in true need of assistance are still getting it, according to Dave Akerly, director of marketing and public relations for Michigan’s Department of Human Services.
Conversely, college students think that the 20 hours per week required to receive a Bridge Card is unrealistically high for their already busy schedules. Those that lost their assistance say they have gotten by, but have had to sacrifice some quality of life. For example, for Western Michigan University student Travis Bakeman, this has mean eating cheaper, lower-quality food.
Akerly says the DHS has not increased requirements to qualify for assistance, but simply corrected a misinterpretation that state officials had made by misapplying federal exemptions to college students receiving food assistance.
In the last two years, the Department of Human Services has saved the taxpayers money while still assisting those college students truly in need, according to Akerly. He says that since only those Michigan residents who truly need the help are now receiving federal food assistance, all taxpayers have saved money.
He also says if the college students losing their Bridge Cards were truly in need and the program had popular support, there would have been more feedback from the affected students. “There was not a lot of feedback from college students at all,” Akerly says.
This fact didn’t seem to matter to Bakeman, who says that if he didn’t have a Bridge Card before the updated requirements, he would have had to take out more student loans. Bakeman lost his assistance because he was not able to get a steady 20 hours a week at his job.
Bakeman’s female roommate was also receiving food assistance before the regulations changed. The loss of the extra money for food was even harder on her and she sometimes didn’t eat during the day, Bakeman says. Bakeman this winter got a higher-paying job and has been able to help with groceries.
The real problem, according to Bakeman, was he discovered he had to work at least 20 hours a week in order to keep his assistance. He says this is an unrealistic expectation for most full-time college students.
That doesn’t mean some college students weren’t abusing the Bridge cards.
“I have heard of people going to, say, Wal-Mart or Meijer, purchasing the Meijer brand pop, dumping it out and going to Harding’s and returning the cans for beer money on a Friday night,” Bakeman says.
An article posted on the DHS website on Feb. 9, 2011, written by then-Public Relations Director Gisgie Dávila Gendreau, quotes state Rep. David Agema (R-Grandville) on abuse of the card: “College students who do not really need assistance have been allowed to take advantage for far too long,” Agema said. “Preventing Bridge card abuse will make sure assistance only goes to those who truly need help. This action will put a stop to this waste of taxpayer money.”
Krista Roberson also heard stories of Bridge Card abuse but didn’t engage in abuse herself. She, like Bakeman, lost her food assistance when the requirements shifted.
Roberson chuckled as she said the 20 hour work requirement was “clearly unfair.”
“I remember the last time I applied for it I explained, ‘I have one job and another job is on-call, so I could be working the additional ten hours (one) week and other times I may not be,” Roberson says. “The funny thing is, they shut off my Bridge Card without telling me.”