While some Ohioans struggle daily to keep food on their shelves, others have amassed amounts large enough to feed a small army – literally.
Some recipients of food assistance have tens of thousands of dollars on their government benefit cards.
A tip from a Central Ohio grocery store employee about large SNAP card balances led 10 Investigates to uncover previously unknown numbers. State and county officials said they were unaware of these large benefit balances.
Margery Miller is retired - homebound - and struggled for two months to get help from the county agency responsible for food assistance. When she repeatedly called, an automated message responded : "Please try calling back again at another time. This call will now be disconnected. Thank you."
"If I wasn't getting ‘Meals on Wheels,’ I'd have an empty refrigerator," said Miller.
Her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card, SNAP for short, allows her to get fresh food that's far better for her diabetes. In August, Miller’s card went empty, not because she spent all of her $200 monthly allowance, but because the county's annual review process took too long.
10 Investigates found 41 households with SNAP balances between $7,000 and $10,000. An additional 14 households have SNAP balances of $10,000 to $21,000. That's more than many people have in their savings account.
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Joel Potts leads the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors Association.
"When you first told me about me about it, I was surprised. I've been involved with this for years and I had no idea why they would have balances of those size,” Potts said.
Counties contacted by 10 Investigates determined the large balances are not from fraud.
"What we found in general is these are people being extremely frugal," Potts said after talking with county officials who reviewed these large balances.
How much assistance families can receive is determined by eligibility formulas, not need.
Because it's not fraud, the benefits balance is never taken away, it just keeps piling up month after month.
The money remains even if the family is no longer considered eligible – or if the family no longer has a need for the government assistance. In other words, you can need food and not get it, or not need food and have thousands you can use anyways.
The only exception to that is if a food account goes inactive for at least a year’s time, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services spokesman Ben Johnson said. During an annual review, if officials notice the account has not been used for at least 365 days, the balance is then taken away.
"Not an excuse. Frankly, it's a horrible situation," said Potts.
People like Margery Miller would just like any balance on her SNAP card. Miller is eligible for it, she just couldn’t reach anybody to renew her enrollment. After 10 Investigates called inquiring about her case, her issue was fixed.
"The state is in the process of building a new eligibility system, but frankly, I would contend we're 3 to 5 years before that system is totally functioning the way it's supposed to," explained Potts. Also after contact from 10 Investigates, the state will now give county agencies a list of households with food balances over $5,000 thousand dollars to investigate any possible cases of fraud.