Op-ed: Court was right to halt bungled SNAP rules

By Gail Evans, Legal Director NM Center on Law and Poverty

Published in the Albuquerque Journal, Monday, March 28th, 2016. See the original article at http://www.abqjournal.com/747133/opinion/court-was-right-to-halt-bungled-snap-rules.html

Earlier this month, a federal court halted the latest effort by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration to revise the state’s SNAP food assistance program because the revisions were illegally denying food assistance to people in need.

A recent editorial by the Albuquerque Journal blasted the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty for bringing a lawsuit to prevent this effort. However, a very basic review of the facts reveals the suit halted a bureaucratic nightmare that left people in our state without either food aid or job opportunities.

The governor has wanted to revise state SNAP policy to penalize people receiving food assistance who do not meet certain work requirements. However, each attempt to impose these requirements has been a disaster.

When the Human Services Department first tried to do so, in 2014, a state court found that the agency’s rules were so incoherent that they could not be deciphered. The department tried again this year, but a federal court found they were not implementing the penalties fairly or in accordance with the law.

In the hearing, Judge Kenneth Gonzalez heard testimony from the department’s own employees that they had no way to track who had been meeting work requirements and who had not. They admitted that the department’s notice procedures were inadequate and that caseworkers were not trained. They admitted that chronically ill and homeless individuals had been wrongly classified as ineligible for exemptions. They heard testimony from people who were wrongfully denied food assistance and learned of some 12,000 New Mexicans directly affected by this bungling.

The evidence was so clear and overwhelming, the judge ruled that the department must cease applying penalties until it demonstrates it can apply them within the law.

One of the roles of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is to ensure that laws like this, which impact low-income New Mexicans, are well designed and implemented. When they are not, we seek to get the problem repaired.

Our staff spent many hundreds of hours over the past two years trying to get the state to do this one right. But the state Human Services Department, with major deficits in funding and administrative expertise, has so far failed, causing harm to people in trying. Judge Gonzales was absolutely right to stop them.

All of the witnesses in this case want to work and need help finding work. Low-income New Mexicans are not lazy or cheats. The problem is that they are living in a broken state education system and a flailing economy, among the worst in the nation on both counts.

The very least our state government can do during times of crisis is effectively and efficiently administer the public safety net that is required by law.

Instead, the Human Services Department is left to serve record numbers of people in need while struggling with inadequate funding and a shallow bench of capable administrators. They are barely able to administer the expanded Medicaid program, which has been the best source of jobs and out-of-state investment we’ve had in the past five years.

It makes no sense for the governor to add to the department’s workload with new SNAP regulations unless they can be implemented properly.

Federal law doesn’t require these regulations in places of high unemployment like New Mexico. But it does require of the very few states choosing to impose them that they be imposed legally and fairly.

People should be notified when they are subject to new regulations. People who are meeting the requirements and those who cannot work, such as people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, should not lose food assistance.

The Journal’s editorial attack on the Center on Law and Poverty and the courts is baseless and misses an important opportunity to help hold our government accountable for policies and practices that are improperly impacting thousands of people.

Santa Fe New Mexican: Judge issues injunction to prevent state from denying food aid

Read the original article on the Santa Fe New Mexican’s website.

By Justin Horwath, The New Mexican

Thousands of New Mexicans will not have to prove to the state that they’re working in order to receive food benefits after a federal judge ruled that the state has been wrongly denying assistance to people through stricter rules that went into effect this year.

Karume Henry, left, from Santa Fe, and Christina E. Nelson, right, from Santa Fe, speak with Linda Montero, a family assistance analyst at the Human Services Department, while they apply for food stamps on Wednesday, March 8, 2016. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican
Karume Henry, left, from Santa Fe, and Christina E. Nelson, right, from Santa Fe, speak with Linda Montero, a family assistance analyst at the Human Services Department, while they apply for food stamps on Wednesday, March 8, 2016. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican
The injunction against the state, issued late Monday by U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales of Las Cruces, means that between approximately 11,000 and 17,500 New Mexicans will not have to prove they’re working or looking for work in exchange for help getting food.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the state Human Services Department, did not answer a question Tuesday about whether the department will appeal the ruling regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“The Human Services Department provides SNAP benefits to more than 500,000 New Mexicans and we disagree with this ruling, which prevents us from engaging 11,000 of those recipients in employment search, job training and community service opportunities that would have helped them transition off of public assistance,” Nerison said in an email. “These are the same broad-based bipartisan work or job search requirements that were signed into law by President Bill Clinton and have existed for years in New Mexico public assistance programs.”

During the recession, Congress granted states waivers from requiring able-bodied adults to prove they were working or risk losing food benefits after three months. That waiver expired and Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration implemented new work requirements through a rule-making process last year that followed contentious public hearings.

Martinez’s Human Services Department said it was putting the changes in place because the federal government required it to do so after the state’s waiver expired. But opponents of the changes said the administration implemented harsher rules than the federal government required.

The changes would have required childless adults without disabilities between the ages of 18 and 49 to prove to the state they’re spending 80 hours a month in an approved work activity in order to receive food benefits for more than three months. That segment will not be subject to the rule as long as the judge’s injunction is in place.

The case has its roots in a decades-long lawsuit. A group of Medicaid and food recipients said the Human Services Department violated federal law by denying them welfare benefits to which they were entitled. The department is under various court orders that require it to write notices about benefits at a sixth-grade reading level and to accurately communicate to people the status of their benefits.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an Albuquerque advocacy group that represents the plaintiffs, in January asked Gonzales to issue an injunction to temporarily prevent the department from instituting the rules. Portions of the rule changes went into effect Jan. 1, and the rest were to take effect this October.

But with the injunction, the state cannot institute the work rules until Dec. 31 unless it proves to the judge that the rules won’t result in New Mexicans illegally being denied food benefits, said Sovereign Hager, staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Hager said Judge Gonzales agreed with the center that the state has been illegally denying benefits under the new rules. She said that Gonzales ordered the two parties in the case to meet for a status conference every three months to update him on how the department will implement the rules without improperly denying people assistance with food.

The Human Services Department has maintained that it “legally and properly implemented” the rules for able-bodied people receiving assistance.
But at Monday’s hearing, the center pointed to examples of New Mexicans who were denied benefits under the new rules.

“People were telling the workers, ‘I sleep outside.’ ‘I sleep in a baseball field dugout,’” Hager said in an interview. “The workers did not explain that there are exemptions for being homeless or exemptions for people being disabled.”

Hager said that the lack of proper information about how to claim exemptions worked against the needy. “It’s inevitable that people are just going to be cut off” from the benefits, she said.

The center and the department are scheduled to face off in another legal battle in April in which the center argues the state should be held in contempt of court for violating orders in the case. The state has filed objections to that motion in the long-running lawsuit.

Justin Horwath can be reached at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

Federal Court Halts New Mexico’s Illegal Limits on Food Assistance

Federal District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales and Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza issued an injunction late Monday evening preventing the state from implementing a new three month time limit on food assistance. The injunction protects 17,500 eligible New Mexicans from losing food assistance due to problems with the state’s administration of the time limit.

Legal Director Gail Evans and co-counsel Dan Yohalem outside the Federal District Courthouse in Las Cruces.
Legal Director Gail Evans and co-counsel Dan Yohalem outside the federal courthouse in Las Cruces.

On January 1, 2016, the state began implementing new regulations that would penalize childless adults between the ages of 18-50 by limiting them to just 3 months of food assistance if they did not work at least 20 hours a week or participate in a qualifying job training program.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty has been seeking to prevent the state from establishing time limits until they could be implemented without causing eligible people to improperly lose food assistance. The law center filed a request for injunction on behalf of adults improperly subject to the penalty who had not been provided basic information about the rules. Named plaintiffs included homeless and disabled adults and working adults for whom benefits were illegally delayed.

In a six-hour hearing in Las Cruces, Judge Gonzales and Judge Garza heard testimony from people who were at risk of losing the food assistance for three years because the Human Services Department either failed to properly exempt them from the time limit or failed to give them the information necessary to comply with it. In issuing the injunction, the Court recognized the “severe harm,” that is likely to result from the state’s failed and illegal implementation of the time limit including increased hunger and malnutrition and an increased burden on food banks. The Court found that the harm to applicants greatly outweighed any administrative burden on the state of delaying implementation.

National data shows that adults subject to the time limit are extremely poor, living below 17% of the federal poverty level and usually ineligible for any other form of assistance. New Mexico has the highest unemployment in the United States and some of the high rates of food insecurity in the country. This is the second time that a Court has blocked Governor Martinez from implementing the three month time limit. A New Mexico District Court entered a Temporary Restraining Order in October of 2014 and the Department stipulated to an injunction.

Sovereign Hager, Staff Attorney at the Center on Law and Poverty stated “we are pleased that unemployed adults will not face the illegal loss of food assistance in addition to the economic hardship that many are already facing in New Mexico. The state must bring the administration of the food assistance program into compliance with the law before opting to implement a three month limit for unemployed adults. We hope that the state will take this time to fix program errors and ensure that any requirements provide meaningful opportunities for unemployed New Mexicans.”

Click here to download a pdf copy of the press release: Press Release-HSD flawed SNAP Time Limit implementation enjoined-2015-03-08

For more information, contact:
Gail Evans, Legal Director, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (505) 255-2840
Sovereign Hager, Staff Attorney, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (505) 417-2084