Our Pledge To You


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

Older style federal food stamp that was replaced in the 1990s by the LINK card. File Photo by Brian Jackson

Officials at the Illinois Department of Human Services are demanding a 70-year-old Chicago woman pay the state $741 because they say she received more food stamps than she was entitled.

Where it gets weird is that the alleged “over-issuance” of food stamps took place between 1983 and 1985.

If she doesn’t pay up, the state says it will submit the elderly woman’s debt to the U.S. Department of the Treasury for purposes of withholding any federal payments owed her, including Social Security.

“Who would send somebody something like this?” Annie, the 70-year-old, asked me last week after showing me the notice.


Look, I’ve been doing this sort of thing long enough to know that many of those reading about Annie’s case will think it’s a great idea for the state to aggressively pursue what they would consider “welfare deadbeats.”

Then there are those like me stunned to learn that the government can or would reach back 32 years to collect on an alleged debt from an obviously poor person. The passage of time alone would make it difficult to mount a defense.

Isn’t there a statute of limitations?

Actually, no, explained Meghan Powers, an Illinois Department of Human Services spokeswoman.

Powers said the state is mandated by federal law to collect any overpayments from the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The same goes for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

There is no time limit on when the debts can be collected, and the department does not have discretion to forgive old debts, Powers said.

Annie acknowledged receiving food stamps during the years in question, when she says she was out of work and raising a then-teenage daughter. She does not agree that she received more than she was entitled.

“I don’t remember them giving me no over-issuance,” Annie said. “All I got was what they said I would get.”

Annie said she squared away her life in the mid-1980s, got a job and hasn’t been on food stamps since. Now, she’s retired and collecting Social Security, which she fears will be interrupted.

An “over-issuance” can be triggered when individuals are later reported to have received income during a period they were receiving food stamps.

I learned about Annie’s case through a public interest law firm she approached for help. They thought I might be able to do more than they could.

Unfortunately, Annie asked that I not use her last name or allow me to take a photograph. I don’t like to do business that way.

In this case, though, I can’t figure out another way to tell the story, which deserves to be out there.

Fran Tobin, a spokesman for the Alliance for Community Services, a group of social service workers and recipients, told me he frequently sees cases like Annie’s.

“The partners in the Alliance consider it wildly unfair to sanction a poor person for what was really the state’s mistake years ago,” Tobin argued. “Are they supposed to return food from 20 years ago? How many corporations have their ‘job creation’ subsidies clawed back when they don’t produce the jobs they promised?”

As I say, I’ve seen Annie’s paperwork from the state, so I know that much of her story is true.

Without her written permission, however, I could not get the state to discuss her specific case with me.

A point in Annie’s favor is that she contacted the state in hopes of resolving the dispute. She said she even mailed a check for $300 as a down payment, not because she believes she owes the money, but because she wants the matter laid to rest.

“I’m too old for this. I can’t take it,” Annie told me.

Unless there’s more to this, I don’t think she should have to take it.