Cut off Food Stamps to Mercedes Owners? Just Maybe

There's been a lot of discussion lately about a plan in Michigan to deny food stamp benefits to people who own cars worth $15,000 and up.

At first I thought, "Well, yeah." A $15,000 car can be a symbol of financial success. It's not a sign someone is in dire straits. Then I mulled the scenarios that could lead someone who drives an average to above-average car to apply for food stamps.

In our current economy, this person, let's call her Joanne, might have bought her brand new Hyundai Elantra when she had a stable job as a receptionist at a law firm, but has since been laid off. She no longer has a stable income to pay for all of her expenses, including car payments and grocery bills.

Joanne shouldn't be denied food stamps -- her setback is temporary. Until recently she was financially independent and deserved to drive around in a new car. That being said, her food stamp benefits should also be granted on a temporary basis.(Michigan recently amended the orginal plan to say it would exempt one car per family.)

The following might work. Joanne should be granted food stamps benefits for 90 days. That would give her three months to find another job and improve her situation. If after 90 days, she couldn't find gainful employment, then she should be required to downgrade her car or lose her food stamp benefits.

She could sell her car and buy a cheaper, under $5,000 car, effectively decreasing her monthly expenses -- which at this hypothetical point in her life would be a sound idea.

Now, if Joanne is so attached to that new car smell that she isn't willing to do this, then her benefits should be discontinued. Why? Because now what we are really doing is subsidizing the payments for her Elantra.

Of course, if someone owns a car outright and isn't making monthly payments, then that brings up another question. In such a case, tax money would not be enabling that person to make car payments -- so what is the issue? Should they have to sell that car and buy a cheaper one so that they can put a little money in their pocket? Money that may help tide them over until their situation improves?

In this situation, I don't think we should punish someone who has worked hard enough to buy a decent car. But again, help should be provided on a temporary basis.

Michigan's proposal is not without its value, but there are many details that need to be taken into account. It shouldn't be enacted as a blanket policy. Determinations of eligibility should be made on a case by case basis.

The food stamp program was never intended to be lifelong assistance - benefits are supposed to help tide people over until they get on their feet again. And they're definitely not intended to provide people with a way of maintaining their current lifestyles without making sacrifices.

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Ily Goyanes
Contact: Ily Goyanes