OLYMPIA, Wash. - Some local families who tell the state they're desperate to put food on the table are instead racking up thousands of dollars, and they can use some of that money however they want – and you’re paying for it.
Every single month in Washington state, more than a million of your neighbors are buying more than a hundred million dollars’ worth of basic food with a state-issued food stamp card called EBT-- or electronic balance transfer.
It replaced traditional food stamps years ago and it works exactly like a debit card, except for one thing. The EBT balance is funded with federal tax dollars. The state doles out more than $142 million a month to people on food stamps. Some of that money can be withdrawn as cash from ATMs.
Alice is a cashier at a major-franchise grocery store who says she'll be fired if she reveals her identity, because she secretly started collecting curious receipts from her EBT customers.
“This one’s for $1,464 on their food card,” she showed KIRO 7 Eyewitness News reporter Gary Horcher. “This one has a cash balance of $813.”
Alice said 80 to 90 percent of the customers she helps use EBT cards at her store.
“Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong in the system, that these people are getting this much money on their EBT card,” said Alice.
In the last two years, Alice started seeing some very high balances at the end of the month, when many other EBT accounts are drained.
But then she noticed customers with staggering balances.
A young woman with a child had a breathtaking balance of $8,427.
“(That) was the one that made me want to know why,” said Alice.
To put those numbers in perspective, Horcher showed the receipts around.
One man, 26-year-old Shane Person, said he's qualified to comment on the big balances.
Between jobs, Person lives in the back of his old Bronco.
“I got pillows, I got blankets, I got everything,” said Person.
Person gets EBT benefits, too. How much money does a single man like Shane get?
“Two-hundred. It comes every month,” said Person.
Person figures the people with inflated balances are getting more money because they have more dependents, and they're stockpiling the amount of money they receive every month. He said he would love to have a $1,000 balance.
“On my $200, that would take me five months to do that. That’s five months of not eating,” said Person.
Person wonders how people with thousands in EBT accounts are paying for food, or if they need the help at all.
“If you’re going to have that outstanding balance, then why do you really need food stamps and cash? Are you raising an army?” said Person.
“I don’t understand how these people are doing this! It’s not fair and it’s not right to the people who really do need help,” said former EBT recipient David Snow.
Horcher showed the receipts to former food stamp recipient and Vietnam veteran David Snow, while Person calculated how to make $58 dollars last him for two weeks.
Horcher asked Snow if his EBT balance was ever high.
“Never. I didn’t have enough. I couldn’t have a balance. It was enough for me being single, a couple hundred a month in food to help to sustain – to at least have something to eat once a day,” said Snow.
To find answers, Horcher hand-delivered the EBT receipts to the source – the Department of Social and Health Services in Olympia.
Horcher was led to state EBT investigator Troy Parks.
“Food stamps, first of all, are supposed to be supplemental,” said Parks.
DSHS workers agreed that the balances seemed very high and worth looking into.
Days after Horcher signed the receipts into evidence, he got some answers.
DSHS sent him a written response. It turns out, a small percentage of EBT recipients do stockpile their benefits. DSHS couldn’t tell Horcher exactly how many, but if their account has more than three months’ worth of money in it, case workers are supposed to remind them to spend that money on food and find out if they have other income.
But it’s illegal for caseworkers to suspend, or cut EBT benefits, just because someone has a really big balance.
DSHS rules state they'll only cut a client off if their account isn't used in an entire year.
But caseworkers have to keep track of an all-time record of 1,117,089 people receiving EBT benefits in Washington State.
They say they're constantly checking to see if EBT clients truly need the money.
Alice feels it's time for serious reforms in the system.
“Because these are our tax dollars being spent. And I don’t think our tax dollars are being spent wisely,” said Alice.
Most of the money spent on EBT comes from the federal government. The state pays for fraud investigations and to process claims.
DSHS said almost half of the people getting EBT benefits are children.
To read a question and answer sheet on EBT cards, follow this link.