GOP State Senator Tries, Fails To Force Poor Kids To Shop At Thrift Stores

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Michigan state Sen. Bruce Caswell (R) suggested that children in the state on public assistance be forced to spend their annual clothing allowance at thrift stores, lest the $80 allocated to them every year go to something other than new duds.

In the end, he didn’t get what he wanted. But he was able to make sure that $80 will go to clothes and nothing but — and that people who use the state’s Bridge Card electronic benefit system have to go through an extra step before buying clothes for children in their care.

The Republican acknowledges that neither plan would save the economically-listing Michigan a dime. Caswell says he just wants to make sure welfare money is spent on what it’s supposed to be spent on.

Caswell’s original plan — which would have made clothing allowance funds redeemable only at thrift stores like Goodwill — kicked up some ire among progressives in Michigan and around the country. But Caswell told Michigan Public Media that there’s nothing wrong with wearing old clothes.“I never had anything new,” Caswell recalled to MPM. More:

I got all the hand-me-downs. And my dad, he did a lot of shopping at the Salvation Army, and his comment was — and quite frankly it’s true — once you’re out of the store and you walk down the street, nobody knows where you bought your clothes.

That comment brought strong response from advocates for the poor.

“I really couldn’t believe this,” Michigan League for Human Services CEO Gilda Jacobs told MPM. “Because I think, gosh, is this where we’ve gone in this state? I think that there’s the whole issue of dignity. You’re saying to somebody, you don’t deserve to go in and buy a new pair of gym shoes.”

It seems the criticism had an impact. A few days after the public radio story, Caswell told the Coldwater, MI Daily Reporter he was making a change to his plan:

After a suggestion from a constituent, he plans to draft an amendment to the proposal that would direct the state to work with major retailers to create a gift card program that would ensure the clothing allowance money only purchases clothing and shoes at their stores. Furthermore, the amendment will direct DHS to negotiate with the retailers for a discount on those clothing items purchased with the allowance in order to get the best deal for the recipients.

Caswell’s plan would mean that guardians would have to use gift cards to buy clothes at a given retailer. Then those cards could only be used to purchase specific items in the store.

“If anyone else has a better idea on how we can ensure the money goes for clothing alone, I very much welcome those suggestions and urge you to share your ideas with me,” Caswell told the paper.

Caswell’s scheme passed the State Senate Appropriations committee last week, meaning it’s a step closer to passing the Republican-controlled state legislature and heading to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk for signature.

Caswell told the Detroit News that even without the thrift store requirement, the plan will make sure the clothing money is well spent.

“The clothing or shoes that is purchased with these cards shall not be redeemable for cash,” he told the paper, speaking of the new Bridge Card rules included in his budget line. “This way, we know the kids are getting the clothing and the money is spent appropriately.”

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