Our Pledge To You

News

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

Confiscated food stamp coupon books. 1996 file photo. (Robert A. Davis/Sun-Times)

My column about Annie, the 70-year-old woman being dunned $741 by the state of Illinois for allegedly receiving too much in food stamps in the mid-1980s, caught the attention of lawyer Dan Lesser.

Lesser is director of economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, where he specializes in government benefit programs.

Lesser shares my opinion that Annie’s situation has been mishandled.

“While not everyone would agree, it’s safe to say that most would consider this to be an absurd waste of the state’s resources and fundamentally unfair to Annie,” Lesser told me in email.

OPINION

More importantly, Lesser said the Illinois Department of Human Services made incorrect statements about the law in its explanations of how it handled Annie’s case.

The first key DHS contention was that there is no statute of limitations — or time limit — on how long the state can pursue debts owed under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps.

The second was that the state has no discretion under the food stamp program to forgive old debts such as hers.

Wrong and wrong again, says Lesser.

“To the contrary, federal law gives states wide discretion to waive food stamp overpayments,” he said.

Before we wade into the nitty-gritty of how Lesser says the state could have handled Annie’s case, let’s back up a bit.

As for Annie, she decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of fighting the state over the alleged debt given the threat the money could be deducted from her Social Security checks.

She made a partial payment with a promise to make regular installments until the alleged debt is extinguished. She told me she just wants to be left alone.

If Annie’s case was just an aberration, that might have been the end of it.

But Lesser said there have been numerous reports around the state in recent years about the department pursuing other former food stamp recipients over small alleged debts. There’s a clear pattern.

Just last year, the Springfield Journal-Register reported on a McLeansboro woman who received notice that she owed a $242 debt from a food stamp overpayment in 1985. Also last year, the Peoria Journal Star reported on the case of Bartonville man being pursued by the state for receiving $86 too much in food stamps in 1986.

The unfairness here, as Lesser notes, is that such long delays make it difficult for those with the alleged debts to defend themselves.  Records are lost. Memories become fuzzy.

Federal law also recognizes that collecting small amounts of alleged overpayments years later can be an inefficient use of the state’s resources, he said.

For those reasons, Lesser said the federal food stamp program has these rules:

— A state can’t collect a claim for any amount where the overpayment occurred more than six years before the state became aware of the overpayment.

— If a state calculated the overpayment many years ago, but the claim has been delinquent for three years or more, the state must terminate collection and write off the claim.

—A state can determine it is not cost-effective to pursue a claim, provided it includes its criteria for cost effectiveness in a plan approved by the federal government.

—The state can “compromise the claim” by reducing it to zero, if it determines that the “economic circumstances” of the household are such that it will not be paid within three years. This also would require the state amending its federally-approved plan for dealing with overpayments.

Those rules seem sensible.

Lesser sent a letter making all these points to the Illinois Department of Human Services and offering to help the agency implement better collection policies and procedures. He has yet to receive a response.

They might want to take him up on the offer before this becomes the subject of a lawsuit.