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BROWN: State hounds grandma for aid debt she says she paid long ago

Carmen Perez, 81, said she thought it was a "scam" when she received a bill from the State of Illinois for what it said was an overpayment of food stamps from the 1980s. She still does. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Carmen Perez, 81, relied on public welfare to help provide for the seven children she raised in Little Village.

Perez said she needed government assistance at the time because her husband, a Korean War veteran, had trouble holding a job after returning from service.

Judging by the results, it was a sound public investment.

All seven of her children graduated college and went on to professional careers. Two are nurses. One a teacher. Another a lawyer. All of them solid taxpayers.

OPINION

Now 30 years later, the Illinois Department of Human Services is trying to collect some $3,200 in excess public aid benefits they say Perez received back then, mostly for food stamps.

The state wants to collect this alleged debt from an 81-year-old grandmother whose only income is $755 a month in Social Security and spousal veteran’s benefits. She has been living in the same house all these years, not hiding from anybody.

This is more of the same madness I told you about previously with the case of Annie, the 70-year-old woman the state was chasing for $741 for an alleged food stamp overpayment between 1983 and 1985.

If anything, this case is even worse because Perez thought the matter was cleared up in the 1980s with her having repaid whatever was owed.

But like most people, Perez doesn’t have records from that long ago to defend herself.

It was Perez’ daughter Darlene who contacted me after reading my column about Annie. We arranged to meet when Darlene brought her mom downtown for a doctor’s appointment.

RELATED — BROWN: State sticks 70-yr-old with bill for food stamps from 1980s

BROWN: State wrong to chase Annie (and others) over 1980s food stamps

Carmen Perez told me what she told her daughter when a bill from the state arrived in the mail last year.

“This is a racket,” she said.

It is Carmen Perez’ recollection she first received a letter regarding the overpayment in the 1980s and that her benefits were reduced accordingly until the money was repaid.

After that, “they sent me a letter that I don’t have to pay no more. I can’t believe that I owe the money,” she said.

When the new bill arrived in 2016, daughter Darlene contacted the state on her mom’s behalf and was given the same information as Annie: that Illinois is required by federal law to collect such overpayments, that there is no time limit on when the debt can be collected, and that if she didn’t pay, they could deduct the money from her Social Security. Also, it was up to her to prove she didn’t owe the money.

“They scare me,” said Carmen Perez, who came here from Puerto Rico when she was 19.

With no supporting documentation to back up her contention and fearing the loss of her Social Security, Carmen Perez agreed to make payments to the state of $10 a month to put the matter behind her.

But she still doesn’t think it’s fair.

Meghan Powers, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, said state records show Perez was informed in 1986 that she had received overpayments totaling $5,137 in food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Perez was subsequently credited with repaying $1,853, leaving a current balance of $3,134.

The records indicate the overpayments resulted from unreported income Perez received from various jobs.

Powers had no explanation for why the state began pursuing Perez again after all these years or why it had stopped its collection efforts in the first place. As I say, she’s been at the same address for 40 years.

Darlene Perez said her mother wasn’t trying to cheat and was always careful to inform the state when her children turned 18 and were no longer eligible for benefits.

I know how understandably upset people would be if the city came after them for parking tickets they thought were paid in the 1980s.

It shouldn’t be any different just because this involves welfare.