An Initially Misguided Attempt to Help Poor Kids

State Sen. Bruce Caswell is getting beaten up in the blogs these days, and his office is getting dismayed phone calls, all because, at one point, he wanted to tell poor children where to buy their clothes.

If that sounds like a bad idea to you, Caswell agrees.

The Michigan Republican had set out to ensure that adults were spending kids' aid in the right way. On average, low-income families in Michigan get about $80 per year in state aid money to spend on clothing for each of their children. That money goes onto something called a Bridge Card, an all-purpose debit-type card for multiple types of state aid. Under the present system, parents can conceivably misappropriate the money that's supposed to go to their kids' shoes and clothes.

So Caswell, a former teacher and football coach, suggested an idea to ensure the money got spent right: Separate, state-issued gift cards that could only be used on clothes.

One problem: Caswell wanted to force recipients to buy their kids' clothes at second-hand thrift stores like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. From a Michigan Public Radio story on April 15:

"I never had anything new," Caswell says. "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."

Caswell has since backed off that idea. He proposed it in a subcommittee and included it in an earlier version of a funding bill, but after constituents voiced opposition, Caswell dropped it. He revised his gift-card provision to include major retailers, in addition to second-hand thrift stores. The state is charged with working out deals (and, Caswell hopes, discounts) with the clothing stores, where cardholders could buy children's clothes with aid money.

The Senate recently passed a funding bill that included this altered, less restrictive version of Caswell's original proposal.

"I think it just made sense to change it, be sensitive to people on both sides of the equation. Some people want to go to department stores, some people want to go to thrift stores," Caswell, who was elected in November, told me.

Caswell's thrift-store suggestion was so grabbing, in part, because it sounded like an attempt to save money for the state at the expense of poor kids.

"There wasn't anything concerned with saving money for the state. In fact the ironic thing in all this is the Senate budget, the things I'm responsible for, left all the money in there for [clothing aid for] the kids," Caswell said. "The House budget drastically cut the amount of money."

Caswell called the conversations with constituents "very intelligent, thoughtful discussions."

Does he regret his initial proposal?

"I don't have a problem with adjusting things to make them better," Caswell said. "I'm an old teacher, I'm an old coach, and I tell you if I regretted every call I made on Friday night in the football game, I'd drive myself crazy."

Here's the final legislative language of Caswell's proposal, as included in the Senate bill to fund Michigan's Department of Human Services, which Caswell categorized as "the way it should be":

Screen shot 2011-04-25 at 4.34.47 PM.png