A viral image of a grocery store receipt from Menominee, Michigan has been circulating online since May of 2011. The receipt, from Angeli’s Country Market, lists fresh cold water lobster, porterhouse steak, and diet Mountain Dew, totaling $141.78, dated February 8, 2011.
So, someone was going to have a surf and turf feast. Not so unusual, except that the bill was paid using the Bridge Card, which is the electronic equivalent of food stamps in Michigan. So, someone bought almost $150 of lobster and steak, luxury foods, using food stamps.
This would seem to confirm the certainty of many that welfare recipients are often frauds. Why in the word would someone on food stamps buy luxury food items that many of us cannot afford?
The instance was just so spot-on. It would seem to confirm what “my friend” said about having stood in line at the grocery store behind someone buying hundreds of dollars of expensive luxury foods on food stamps. This caused many to believe that the image was not real.
This receipt was reportedly found in the grocery store parking lot.
That’s six lobsters, two steaks, and five 24-packs of diet Mountain Dew (yowza) and resulting in a chain email of various versions, such as the following:
Fw: MI FOOD STAMPS
Doesn’t this give you a warm fuzzy knowing those who have to solicit governmental assistance are able to eat well this weekend???………
Found in a parking lot of a grocery store, Menominee, Michigan
Subject: Fw: Life is tough for the poor…..
Found in a parking lot of a grocery store Menominee, Michigan
Need I say more about Government Giveaway Abuse?
First, there actually was nothing illegal about the purchase. While Michigan food stamp regulations do prohibit the purchase of non-food items using the Bridge card, “any food or food product intended for human consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and foods prepared for immediate consumption” is eligible for purchase. This enrages some folks who feel that food stamp purchases should be restricted to certain types of food items, mostly staples and necessities. All that steak and lobster on the taxpayer dollar?
According to John Schneider, who originally reported the story in the Lansing State Journal, one of his readers described a scenario in which the receipt could be fabricated or bogus:
Could it be that the receipt was a plant? It seems a little far-fetched to me, but an anonymous reader described a scenario in which anti-welfare folks arrange an outlandishly extravagant purchase, then make sure the receipt falls into the hands of somebody who will put it on the Internet.
Others suggest that the receipt was altered. However, the general manager of the company that runs the store didn’t think so – and you would think he would know.
Angeli’s general manager, Mike Jankovich, did indeed confirm the receipt as being genuine. Since such receipts contain an approval code, it was traceable to the recipient. If that were all there was to it, the person who made the purchase would legally be in the clear. But, according to stories published in the Lansing State Journal, fraud was committed.
Louis Wayne Cuff, a Menominee man, had used his girlfriend’s Bridge card to buy the steak, lobster, and soda, and had then re-sold the items at 50% of the original price. He was arraigned in the 95th District Court in Menominee for food stamp trafficking. It took a month of investigating by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Office of Inspector General and the Menominee County Sheriff’s department to find him out.
You might wonder why, then, if the purchase was legal, did authorities go to such trouble? Why did they investigate a legal purchase in the first place? Because the purchase was unusual and over-the-top. While it is perfectly legal to buy such items using food stamps, as DHS spokeswoman Gisguie Gendreau wrote, “these purchases go against the intent of the program, which is to provide help to those who are truly needy.”
Cuff was charged with three counts of food stamp fraud and sentenced to 45 days in county jail with six months probation.
During the period in which this image was circulating, some expressed outrage that the cashier at Angeli’s had allowed the transaction to go through, feeling it should have been refused. Manager Jankovich, understandably annoyed, said that his employee had no right to refuse the transaction under the food assistance rules.
These kinds of instances lead to the supposition that “most people on welfare are lazy and want a free ride.” Such extravagant examples can easily lead to an availability heuristic. If you were actually to stand in line at the grocery store behind someone buying hundreds of dollars worth of steak, lobster, or other expensive luxury foods using a food assistance card, the incident would easily stand out in your mind as representative of “food stamp purchases,” causing you to ignore the many examples of normal and responsible purchases you may have witnessed at other times. Then again, when we seek to limit what other people should be allowed to purchase, where do we draw the line? A box of snack cakes can cause as much outrage as a fresh lobster. Yet, it may be that real welfare fraud more often takes the form of outright fraud, as this example illustrates.