Traverse City Record-Eagle


September 21, 2011

Food stamp eligibility rules to change

Nearly 2 million people receive food assistance

LANSING — An undetermined number of Michigan's nearly 2 million food assistance recipients will lose the help under new eligibility requirements the state will begin using in October.

Michigan has determined food assistance eligibility based only on income for roughly a decade. A new policy will include a review of certain financial assets starting Oct 1. The requirements will affect new applicants right away and existing recipients when their cases come up for review, which typically happens once every six months.

Those with assets of more than $5,000 in bank accounts or some types of property would no longer be eligible for food assistance. Other assets that would count against the cap include vehicles with market values of more than $15,000 and second homes, depending on how much is owed on the properties.

Some assets, such as primary residences and 401(k) accounts, would not be considered for determining food assistance eligibility.

The Michigan League for Human Services said the policies will make it harder for those who are out of work or underemployed to qualify for the assistance. The organization said need is increasing as the state's unemployment rate rose to 11.2 percent in August, the third-highest rate in the nation and up from 10.2 percent in April.

"This is a hard time in Michigan for many families who are transitioning from middle-class jobs to lower-paid jobs and part-time work," Karen Holcomb-Merrill, the organization's policy director, said in a statement. "We should be enacting policies that encourage savings. This may have the opposite effect."

Most states have moved in recent years to get rid of asset tests for food assistance recipients, according to the Michigan League for Human Services report.

More than 1.9 million Michigan residents — nearly 20 percent of the state's population — is covered by the food assistance program. The number of recipients has increased by more than 40 percent since late 2008.

Gov. Rick Snyder's administration has moved to limit eligibility since taking over state government agencies in January. The state removed about 30,000 college students from its food assistance program earlier this year when it began enforcing federal guidelines.

"We have to make sure that we're serving the correct population, those that are truly in need," said Brian Rooney, a deputy director with the Michigan Department of Human Services. "We believe that the asset test will still cover those that are truly in need. "

Michigan already has asset tests for receiving welfare cash benefits or Medicaid.

State officials say it's hard to tell how many residents could lose food stamp assistance under the plan because the asset levels of many recipients are currently unknown.

Food assistance benefits came under some scrutiny earlier this year when it was revealed a Michigan man had continued to get food aid from the state despite winning a $2 million lottery jackpot.

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