Thursday, October 09, 2014

Attorneys Work to Protect SNAP Benefits for New Mexico Families

Sovereign Hager, Louise Pocock, and Jason Riggs
Sovereign Hager and Louise Pocock, staff attorneys at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, were guest speakers at the October meeting of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition.

Ms Hager and Ms. Pocock specialize in providing support and education and protecting public benefits for New Mexico families, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is a federal program administered by the state government. 

The rules (and rule changes) and red tape required for families to obtain SNAP benefits can be complicated and daunting, and the state government often adds bureaucratic obstacles (sometimes rooted in political idealism).  These obstacles often prevent eligible families from participating in the program. For example, the New Mexico Human Services Department announced plans this past summer to limit food stamps available to adults by expanding mandatory job search requirements to include households with children and work requirements for all childless adults. Food stamps.would be terminated for up to one year for participants who do not comply with mandatory job search and up to three years for those who do not complete 20-hour work week requirements. This makes little sense in a state where unemployment is very high.

A presentation to the Interfaith Hunger Coalition
SNAP and (the lack of) jobs
Ms. Hager and Ms. Pocock provided an overview of the situation in presentation to the Interfaith Hunger Coalition in October. Some of the points that were presented are contained in a briefing paper that NMCLP put together  in August. (The faith community, including coalition member Lutheran Advocacy Ministry-New Mexico and the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, have also spoken out against the new state directive).

Ms. Hager addressed the issue at the end of  August in an Op-Ed published the Las Cruces News-Sun.

"Contrary to the Department's thinking, however, New Mexico families don't need to be told to find jobs or made to jump through hoops to be sure they are looking for work," wrote Ms. Hager. "They need job opportunities and assistance in making ends meet until a job is available. Research shows that the overwhelming majority of SNAP participants who can work do work. They use the program when a family member loses their job or faces other hardships."

"SNAP participants who are not working do not lead easy lives; 44 percent of participants live in deep poverty, earning less than $12,000 for a family of four," Ms. Hager added in the opinion piece. "Many live in areas like Doña Ana County, where unemployment is 7.1 percent, well above the national average and rising. These are the families most affected by the lack of opportunity in New Mexico. These people need jobs, not bureaucratic barriers."   Read Rull Op-Ed 

State tweaks original rule
The HSD and Secretary Sidonie Squier clearly did not consider the unemployment question when issuing the decree, which resulted in a huge outcry. As a partial response a month later, the HSD decided  to make exemptions in communities with high unemployment rates (such as Taos).

In an interview with The Albuquerque Journal in September, Ms. Hager expressed concern about HSD’s ability to administer the new regulations. She alluded to a May ruling by a federal judge that the agency was not processing food and health care benefits in a timely manner.
So what happens next? The state is still on schedule to phase in the new regulations on Nov. 1.  And the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, with  thesupport of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition and other faith-community groups, will continue to fight the changes proposed  by the state.

"It is certainly not time to make low-income families, their children and local businesses suffer because some policy makers wrongly believe that 27 percent of Doña Ana County residents are lazy or irresponsible because they accept food assistance," Ms. Hager said in her Op-Ed in the Las Cruces Sun-News in August. "Let HSD show data that job search and work requirements move SNAP participants into jobs."


Michelle Meaders said...

Thanks for reporting on this.

Moving into a job often isn't enough. Since the Gov. vetoed raising the minimum wage in New Mexico, many people may work, but still be in poverty. Or they may make just enough to lose their benefits, so are no better off.

Also, probably many stay-at-home recipients are unpaid caregivers. Forcing them to work away from home would leave their family member stranded. The Governor has cut the services available to developmentally disabled clients, so this has gotten worse. in the last few years.

Third, few people have reported on the fact that the SNAP benefits were cut for every family in November, when part of the stimulus expired. So families are already getting less in benefits, and have had to turn to food banks earlier in the month.

Elizabeth J. Neal said...

That lawyer---Michael J. Piuze---is a past recipient of CAC's "Trial Lawyer of the Year Award." One of the attorneys at his firm is currently on CAC's board. case management software