More than two dozen members of U.S. Congress are calling for an investigation into the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) after a NewsChannel 5 Investigation revealed dozens of Ohio households have unusually high food benefits balances.
"It's just incomprehensible to me how this could even function this way," said U.S. Rep Bob Gibbs (R-OH7).
Gibbs and 26 other members of Congress signed a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, last week demanding the department investigate the "alarmingly high balances" and called the high amounts of unused benefits a "lapse in effective oversight."
"We want to make sure the program is efficient, and viable, and helping the people that really do need assistance," said Gibbs.
U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH16) is one of the lawmakers who signed his name to the letter. Renacci said the high balances are a red flag and Congress should push the USDA to "get to the bottom" of the issue.
"If it's fraud and abuse, it has to be fixed for those that really are in need and need these dollars," he said.
The highest balance in Ohio belongs to a household in Cuyahoga County with a SNAP card balance of $20,092.
Cuyahoga County also has more households with high balances than any of Ohio’s 88 other counties. State records show there are 20 households with more than $5000 on their benefits cards.
The news about the high balances shocked Cleveland residents Antione and Chanelle Hare. The couple signed up for SNAP benefits and began receiving $431 a month to feed their four boys after Antione lost his job earlier this year.
"We can't even fathom the thought of having to save it. We can never save it," said Chanelle.
NewsChannel 5 Investigators asked David Merriman, Administrator of Cuyahoga Job and Family Services, if he was aware of the high balances in households he oversees in the county.
“We have reports provided to us by the state of Ohio when a high balance is available and we look into it,” he said.
Privacy laws prohibit Merriman from sharing the names of the people in the households with high balances.
Merriman declined to reveal the reasons why the 20 households have high balances, but said mental health, hospitalizations, and efforts to avoid using government benefits are reasons why food assistance recipients have accumulated thousands of dollars on their benefits cards.
We also asked Merriman whether recipients should be accumulating their benefits.
“People should use the resources that they need,” he responded.
Federal rules do allow households to carry unused benefits from one month to the next, according to Benjamin Johnson, ODJFS spokesman.
Johnson told us unused benefits are expunged from inactive accounts after 365 days.
NewsChannel 5 Investigators also spoke with Joel Potts, Executive Director of the Ohio Jobs and Family Services Director’s Association, a non-profit representing county job and family administrators.
Potts elaborated on the reasons recipients accumulate cash available on their cards.
“The first thing they need to understand is this isn't a waste of money. It's actually the exact opposite. These are people who are eligible for benefits that aren't using them,” said Potts.
“Maybe they're only spending $50 a month because they're going to the food bank; they're going to the soup kitchen; they're going to the church. They've got family members helping them out . . . so it just builds up month to month to month,” he said.
Potts sent NewsChannel 5 Investigators the following statement about the lawmakers' actions Tuesday:
"County job and family service agencies recognize the importance of program integrity. While there has been no indication that any fraud or misuse of SNAP dollars has taken place in these high balance cases, it is imperative that we ensure program dollars for the systems we administer are being used appropriately. The Congressional interest resulting from a News Channel 5 investigative story for clients with excess SNAP balances is welcome news and we look forward to working with our Congressional delegation and the US Department of Agriculture on this matter. Through such review and oversight we will continue in our efforts to safeguard that no fraud is occurring in these cases. The overwhelming majority of SNAP clients utilize their monthly benefits within the month they are received and many struggle to continually meet the nutritional needs of their household. We will continue to work with all interested parties to implement future policies that address the shortcomings of the program and do not unintentionally negatively impact Ohio residents."