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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.