February 3, 2023
People who need help meeting their basic needs should not be required to repay unproven overpayment debt.
The structures that govern public benefits administration involve a multitude of eligibility factors that must be verified, placing a heavy burden on low-income people seeking aid. As a result, assessing eligibility for benefits can be complicated, and sometimes mistakes are made. Occasionally, these errors can create “overpayments,” generating a debt that can haunt families for years. States are aggressive in their collection of these debts and have the power to seize future benefits, unemployment compensation and federal pay, pensions, or income tax refunds.
Public benefits recipients should not be required to prove that a determination of overpayment has been made in error. The Shriver Center on Poverty Law filed a “friend of the court” brief in a recent Illinois Supreme Court case, Chaudhary v. Department of Human Services, challenging the state agency’s decision that a recipient of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits had been overpaid.
SNAP helps an average 41.5 million people, including 1 in 7 Illinoisans, meet their basic food needs every month. SNAP has been proven to reduce poverty, alleviate hunger, and improve health outcomes. The average SNAP allotment per recipient in Illinois in 2019 was a mere $135 a month, or about $4.44 a day.
In partnership with several other legal aid organizations, the Shriver Center argued that public benefits recipients are at a significant disadvantage throughout the appeals process, and that the loss of access to vital benefits such as nutrition assistance causes them real and far-reaching harm.
Affirming the lower courts, Illinois Supreme Court held that DHS has the burden of proving that an overpayment has been made before it can take SNAP benefits away from a recipient. Noting that the relevant statute is silent on the matter, the court found that the recipient, having been previously approved and awarded SNAP benefits, was not required to prove the absence of an overpayment. The court also found that DHS has superior access to the information and the needed expertise to determine if an overpayment has occurred.
Collection of debt based on unproven overpayments deprives needy people of critical support. The Shriver Center will continue to work to ensure that public benefits recipients’ rights are protected.
Systemic inequities and the legacy of structural racism make it harder for low-income people and people of color to achieve financial stability.