Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Saturday

January 5, 2013

Food aid back for 51K recipients

LANSING (AP) — A Michigan agency scrambled Friday to restore food assistance to 85,000 recipients and families who count on the aid, a day after some were turned away at stores because money was not on their state-issued debit cards.

The error occurred when the Department of Technology, Management and Budget failed to give a vendor a computer file required to load the benefits, spokesman Kurt Weiss said. A family of four receiving food assistance gets about $540 a month on average on their Bridge Card.

About 10 percent of the state's 1.8 million recipients were affected by the problem, which was noticed when new money was not on the debit cards as expected Thursday morning. Recipients typically know the day each month that money is added to their card, and many time their trip to the store accordingly.

"It's really horrible," said Amanda Brown of Ann Arbor, who was embarrassed to learn she had a small amount of change on her Bridge Card when trying to buy nearly $200 worth of groceries at a Kroger on Thursday. "It's just very difficult to wonder when I'm going to be able to put food in my house." The 22-year-old stay-at-home mother of three boys — two of them 5-month-old twins — said the $582 she had expected for the month was still not on her card late Friday afternoon.

"I just keep calling and it's not on there," Brown said in a phone interview.

State officials, who worked overnight on the issue, expected to finish putting money on a "vast majority" of affected cards by 8 a.m. Saturday, depending on how quickly the file could be processed. More than 51,000 cards were restored by late Friday afternoon, and an investigation into what went wrong was under way.

"We are continuing to do everything possible to ensure all of the cards are loaded with their benefits as soon as possible," Weiss said in a statement. "We understand the urgency to get this fixed." The computer file processing runs more quickly at night than during the day, said Weiss, who anticipated having to restore a "very few" number of debit cards on Saturday.

Recipients with account numbers ending in "0'' were affected by the error.

The Michigan Food Assistance Program is paid for with federal tax dollars and administered by states. About $2.9 billion in food assistance — once known as food stamps — was given to Michigan residents in the last budget year.

Advocates for the poor say the assistance is designed to help with some, but not all, of recipients' food expenses.

"In reality, what often happens is because families are so strapped any available cash is going to things like gas, child care, toiletries, utilities," said Terri Stangl, executive director of the Center for Civil Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group with offices in Flint and Saginaw. "A lot of households don't have cash left over to buy food." State offices, the Bridge Card help line and outside organizations were flooded with calls from worried recipients.

"People don't realize when you're budgeting food assistance across the month, you're really counting on that being available when feeding your family. This shows how critical this program is to filling the gap and putting food on the table," Stangl said.

The average monthly benefit is $135 for an individual, $405 for a family of three and $675 for a five-person family, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy, an advocacy group for those in need. Almost 80 percent of food assistance dollars are redeemed within two weeks of being put on the debit cards.

Food assistance recipients can call 888-678-8914 for updates.

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