INDIANAPOLIS -- Records show dozens of Hoosiers receiving government food assistance do not appear to need the benefits.
The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) transfers money to eligible households through an electronic debit card each month.
Call 6 investigates found 30 recipients with balances of $5,000 or more on their cards.
Among the highest balances include a $11,494.84 balance belonging to a Marion County SNAP recipient, a $12,450.16 balance on a Hamilton County user’s card, and $17,100.87 belonging to a SNAP user in St. Joseph County.
The numbers were surprising to Kirstin Gray, a SNAP recipient in Marion County who makes an effort to stretch the $194 she receives every month by growing her own food.
“That seems like an extremely high balance for no one to say ‘Hey,'” said Gray, who receives a redetermination letter every six months making sure she still qualifies for SNAP. “Food is something that should be available to everyone, so that’s why I choose to grow my own food.”
Gray lost her job in 2014 and is still looking for steady work.
“There’s people just trying to survive,” said Gray. “People that need help are not social pariahs.”
Emily Bryant, Executive Director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, said most SNAP recipients in Indiana use their benefits immediately and it’s not intended to cover the entire month.
“The vast majority are spending their benefits as fast as they can get them,” said Bryant. “About half of our clients are on SNAP and continue to frequent a food bank or pantry.”
While the program barely makes ends meet for 723,000 Hoosiers on SNAP, Call 6 Investigates found some people receiving the benefit who don’t appear to need it.
“It seems like an anomaly to me,” said Bryant. “If someone qualifies for SNAP, they’re financially eligible. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re food insecure, which means they don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration administers the SNAP program in Indiana.
FSSA spokesperson Marni Lemons told Call 6 Investigates the high balances make up a tiny percentage of SNAP recipients.
“Federal rules allow households to carry unused benefits from one month to the next and spell out when unused benefits are expunged,” said Marni Lemons, FSSA spokesperson in an email to Call 6 Investigates. “If a purchase is not made with the card within 365 days, unused benefits are expunged from the account.”
FSSA regularly reviews balances of $2,000 or higher.
“However, in and of itself, a high balance does not indicate fraud,” said Lemons. “Fraud most commonly occurs when individuals make prohibited purchases or illegally trade their benefits for cash.”
FSSA has an investigative unit of 25 people who look into SNAP fraud, and the most common type would be not reporting employment that would make a recipient ineligible.
SNAP has faced sharp criticism lately from federal lawmakers concerned about the integrity of the program.
Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) told Call 6 Investigates he is concerned by the high balances exceeding $5,000.
“The findings by WRTV6 provide further proof that our welfare programs are in desperate need of reform,” said Rokita in a statement to RTV6. “We must make sure that taxpayer dollars are going to people in real need. For too long, liberals have judged the success of these programs by how many people are using them, instead of judging success by how many people we are able to lift out of them."
Marni Lemons said the agency assumes SNAP funds provided to a client will be spent.
However, if a purchase isn’t made within a year, they will expunge the benefit, which goes back into the pot of money used for all SNAP recipients.
Someone can rack up a large balance by only spending a fraction of their benefit each year.
How much someone receives in SNAP benefits depends on numerous factors including income, shelter and medical expenses.
For fiscal year 2016 the average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $125.73, and the average montly benefit per household is $254.72.