9 Investigates: Billions of dollars in benefits go unclaimed

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Billions of dollars in benefits are out there and could be yours for the taking. But many people don't go after them, so they're still there, up for grabs.

Jerry McKee thought about going back to school.

"I always wanted to go, but I didn't know where to start,” he said.

He never imagined he may be eligible for college money.

"I had no idea,” he said.

In fact, Ralph Gildehaus's nonprofit, Durham-based MDC, estimates North Carolinians miss out on about $2 billion in unclaimed benefits each year, including food stamps, tax credits, children's health care, seniors' health care and college money.

"It's a lost opportunity,” he said.

Many missing out are veterans, like James Madison. He said when he left the Navy, he needed health care badly and compared it to a boat.

"It was a sinking boat. It was boat with a hole in it,” he said. “And I couldn't stop the water from coming in. I couldn't plug the hole."

He assumed the benefits out there weren't for him.

When asked whether the government should be doing more to find these people, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger said yes and no. He admits there's a lot of red tape and that people need help, saying, "We need to be a safety net. We need to show compassion."

But he also said they need to do legwork too, that it doesn't just fall on the government.

"Certainly people should be responsible. There's no question about it," he said.

Gildehaus knows many taxpayers are thinking if so many benefits are left over, cut them and cut taxes.

"I think that's a big danger,” he said. “When government programs are under-utilized, they tend to be on the chopping block."

So he set up The Benefit Bank in both Carolinas. It's a computer program to match people with benefits all in one place. You can get help using it at roughly 50 nonprofits in the Charlotte area, including Crisis Assistance Ministry, where Raquel Lynch shows people how to use it and said most people who do, get results.

"All the time. Yes. Often," she said.

It worked for Madison.

"It's led me back out to life again,” he said.

It also worked for McKee. It looks like he's going to CPCC and said, "I'm 58 (going back to school) -- ain't that something?"

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