Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

What’s behind bid to ban Bridge cards at casinos?

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite a unanimous vote in the Senate to prevent the use of Bridge cards at casino ATMs, welfare advocates worry that poor people in Michigan are being unfairly targeted for their lifestyle.

The bill, which now goes to the House, would require the Department of Human Services (DHS) to create a program for ATM providers to reconfigure their machines to reject Bridge cards at casinos.

However, ATM vendors would not be required to participate.

Eric Bush, executive director at the Michigan Gaming Commission, said that the three privately owned Detroit casinos, MotorCity, Greektown and MGM Grand, have cooperated with DHS in anticipation of the bill’s passage. All 42 ATMs accepting Bridge cards at those casinos have been identified for reprogramming.

The Bridge Card Program was started to replace food stamps with cards that resemble a debit card and help users avoid the public stigma of using food stamps, said Sharon Parks, president of the Michigan League for Human Services.

The league is a non-profit policy and advocacy group that works on issues involving low-income state residents.

The sponsor, Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood, said he heard a news report earlier this year about public assistance recipients withdrawing large amounts of money from California casino ATMs.

He acknowledged that recipients would still be about to withdraw cash at other ATMs and spend it in casinos, “but I think it’ll give pause to the compulsory gambler,” Hardiman said.

According to Hardiman, Bridge card users withdrew $87,000 from ATMs at Detroit’s Motor City Casino since Oct. 2009. Hardiman said that he has not heard of Bridge card use at any other Michigan casinos.

There are two kinds of uses for the Bridge Card: One is for food only.

The second is for cash assistance payments, intended to meet a family’s other basic needs and can be used at designated ATMs.

The program places no restrictions how the money is used.

Use of the card for legal gambling is “unfortunate, because it’s in relatively low numbers, and people who are being helped really need that help,” said Parks.

“Anything like this — the card being used at casinos or for alcohol and tobacco — gives the program a bad name,” Parks said.

Hardiman said public support for welfare programs drops when taxpayers perceive that their money is used in the wrong way.

Marian Kramer of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization in Detroit said Hardiman’s proposal is only one part of a bigger picture of poor people being unfairly singled out for scrutiny.

For example, a bill to ban lottery ticket vendors from accepting Bridge cards was introduced in December, but is still in a Senate committee. The lead sponsor is Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy.

In addition, the Auditor General’s office is reviewing complaints about Bridge card use at the request of Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, and three other legislators, said Deputy Auditor General Scott Strong.

Kramer said that some politicians are trying to divert attention from the real issues of unemployment and poverty.

“It’s just another way of utilizing something irrelevant like this to blame the poor, when our lives have been gambled away by this government,” Kramer said.

Jerry Johnson, associate professor of social work at Grand Valley State University said that it’s a fairness issue – why the poor are placed under more scrutiny than people who don’t receive public assistance.

“Just because people are poor, undue rules are unfairly put on them that aren’t put on other people,” said Johnson. “My entire salary is paid for by taxpayer money but no one says anything about the way I use it.”

Filed under: Legislation

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