Commentary
11:43 am
Wed September 28, 2011

Food Assistance: Losing the Lottery

My favorite new magazine is nice to look at, isn’t printed on paper, and has eye-opening new information about our state twice a week. It’s called Bridge, and it is published online by the non-partisan, non-profit Center for Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Best of all, it’s free. The title comes from the magazine’s purpose, which is to inform citizens in both peninsulas about the serious issues facing our state -- but do so in an interesting, well-written way, according to Center for Michigan founder Phil Power.

By the way, I serve on the center’s advisory steering committee, but have no policy-making role or financial interest in it.

I am very interested in the articles Bridge publishes, however, and the newest one has a real eye-opener about how one man’s winning the lottery last year means fifteen thousand Michiganders are will be losing food stamps next month. And not, that is, because the state had to pay out so much money.

It’s because of bureaucratic stupidity, and because the lottery winner, a man named Leroy Fick from Auburn, bought a sports car.

According to writer Ron French, Fick, who had been poor, chose to take his lottery winnings in a lump sum of eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which is a pretty good lump.

To his credit, Fick called the Michigan Department of Human Services and said he figured he needed to turn in his Bridge Card, which the state issues so the needy can get food and cash assistance.  But the caseworker said, don’t do that.

You still qualify for food stamps, he was told, because he had taken his earnings in a lump sum. It was an asset, not income.

So Fick regularly drove his new Audi sports car to the grocery store and used his food stamps. Not surprisingly, eventually someone complained. So the Department of Human Services jumped in to fix the problem.  Only trouble is, they needed a scalpel, and used an ax.

Maura Corrigan, who left the Michigan Supreme Court to head human services, has now decreed that anyone with at least five thousand dollars in assets will no longer qualify for food stamps. Your house doesn’t count as an asset. But the total value of all family vehicles can’t exceed fifteen thousand dollars.  But -- suppose I lose my construction job, and own a year-old pickup truck. I need that truck if I am ever to get another job. But if it is worth twenty thousand dollars, I no longer can get food assistance for my family. That doesn’t seem to make very much sense to me.

Nobody would object to ending food stamps to anyone who has big sums in money market accounts. And clearly, it didn’t make any sense for Leroy Fick to keep getting food stamps either. But surely Human Services could craft a better policy. As a former supreme court justice, Corrigan should know the importance of careful deliberations and fine distinctions.

We, and perhaps she, need to know a lot more about the fifteen thousand people who are about to lose food assistance.

Are they more like Leroy, or people with one decent car and a little savings who legitimately need help?

I’m hoping that a further issue of Bridge will say.