Proposed cuts to SNAP in House Farm Bill would take food off the table for New Mexico families

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — The House Farm Bill, released yesterday, proposes significant cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by cutting eligibility for families, penalizing unemployed adults, and other changes. The cuts would make it difficult for millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans to access enough groceries and healthy food. The bill would have a particularly harmful impact on New Mexico, where one in four people rely on SNAP to eat, including 40 percent of the state’s young children.

“We have a shared responsibility to make sure our neighbors and members of our community all have enough to eat and can access healthy food. But these shameful changes to SNAP literally take food off the table for people trying to get by,” said William Townley, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “It is completely backward to take food away from people who are struggling to find work. We know that participating in SNAP helps people get on their feet when they are unemployed.”

SNAP is the nation’s and New Mexico’s most effective anti-hunger program. It helps struggling families and workers access enough food to eat. The vast majority of SNAP participants, 74 percent, are in families with children and 51 percent are in working families. The remainder, 26 percent, are in families with members who are elderly or have disabilities. New Mexico families receive SNAP for an average of 14 months, making it a critical temporary support.

The Farm Bill would cut eligibility for SNAP for hundreds of thousands of families by reducing the income limits from 165 percent to 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level and removing any options for New Mexico to increase the eligibility level. It would also add bureaucratic requirements that had been removed decades ago, such as requiring New Mexicans to provide their utility bill to their local Income Support Division office.

The proposed bill would require states to mandate and administer an unpaid work program for unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 59, including families with children over six years old. Federal law would no longer permit states to design and implement their own work programs. Up to 121,000 New Mexicans would face termination of SNAP, while tens of thousands of children and other family members would face reduced benefits for up to three years.

Currently, only adults age 18 to 49 without children can be required to do work hours if they are unemployed and waivers are available for areas of high unemployment. New Mexico has consistently qualified for a waiver of any federal work requirements because New Mexico has persistently high unemployment compared with the national average. Under the new bill, most of New Mexico would no longer qualify for a waiver.

The changes to federal food assistance programs would also impact Native American communities in New Mexico, which include 23 sovereign nations. The proposed Farm Bill seeks to eliminate federal requirements that people receiving food assistance on Native American reservations be surveyed to determine which traditional foods are most common in the community.

“Native American nations have the right to govern their affairs and protect the health and well-being of their peoples,” said Cheryl Fairbanks, interim executive director of the Native American Budget and Policy Institute. “Not only do the proposed cuts in the Farm Bill violate the rules and trust between tribal sovereigns and the federal government, they would increase hardship for Native Americans families. We need to make sure that all of our kids have their basic necessities met.”

As of February 2018, 75,637 SNAP participants in New Mexico were Native American. The federal government must engage in government to government consultation prior to changing federal food programs that impact Native Americans. Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache governments must be able to determine the best way to address food security in their own communities.

“We know SNAP works in New Mexico. Cutting it would take food away from people struggling to make ends meet, and from children and working people,” said Townley. “When you are looking for a job, you need to be able to eat.”

The Farm Bill, a piece of legislation renewed every five years, includes the budget for food and agriculture programs, such as crop insurance and subsidies, rural development, SNAP, and other nutrition programs.

For more information on SNAP in New Mexico, go to: http://nmpovertylaw.org/proposed-budget-will-increase-hunger-and-inequality-in-nm-february-2018/

Court finds management problems prevent HSD from fixing food and medical benefits applications

ALBUQUERQUE—A federal court found that lack of leadership and accountability in the New Mexico Human Services Department prevents it from fixing entrenched problems in food and medical benefit administration.

In a ruling issued late yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales set a series of deadlines for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms and required the appointment of knowledgeable subject matter experts in supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), Medicaid, and eligibility for families that include immigrants in the department’s Income Support Division.

“We’re very hopeful that this ruling will lead to much needed changes in the department’s leadership,” said Sovereign Hager, managing attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “For there to be permanent improvement in administration, the Human Services Department leadership must have expertise and management abilities that give front line workers the tools they need to ensure New Mexicans can get food and medical assistance. HSD is still not processing applications in time, leaving too many children and families unable to access basic necessities.”

In September 2016, Judge Gonzales held the HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families. The court appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department.

Despite court orders and the expertise provided by the Special Master, HSD continues to improperly deny eligible New Mexicans food and medical assistance and does not provide timely information about case decisions. Each month the department develops a backlog of unprocessed cases, a large share of phone calls go unanswered, and workers are not accurately trained on the requirements for processing food and medical assistance applications.

In his ruling yesterday, the judge agreed with the Special Master’s January 2018 report finding that the current HSD management team lacks the sufficient “knowledge, skills, and abilities” necessary to ensure families receive information about their cases and get the assistance they need to eat and see the doctor.

The judge also found that the Income Support Division Director demonstrated “woefully” little knowledge of the court ordered changes to improve processing food and Medicaid applications despite the significant impact they had on the division’s mission and work.

The judge was also troubled by the ISD Director’s lack of knowledge of standard memoranda issued by her division, training procedures, and her admitted failure to speak with the Regional Operations Managers on how to address improving timeliness and efficiency.

“We hope the state will make the management changes that will end the need for such extensive oversight through the courts,” said Hager. “New Mexicans who are going through significant hardships shouldn’t have to fight with the state to get the food and medical care they need.”

Center attorneys working on the Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest lawsuit include Sovereign Hager, Gail Evans, and Maria Griego. Civil rights attorney, Daniel Yohalem is lead counsel on the case.

The court’s ruling can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Doc.-836-Memorandum-Opinion-and-Order-2018-04-05-00000003.pdf

Proposed ordinance blocks homeless shelter in Roswell

ROSWELL, NM — A proposed Roswell City Council ordinance blocking the construction or operation of a new or expanded homeless shelter in Roswell violates the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions and the Fair Housing Act, charged the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in a letter sent yesterday to the Roswell Mayor and City Council. The City of Roswell would be unable to meet vital housing needs and reduce homelessness if the proposed ordinance is passed because it imposes excessive zoning restrictions that exclude any new or expanded shelter from operating in the city.

“Everyone benefits when all community members have a safe place to sleep at night, access to running water, and bathrooms,” said Sovereign Hager, managing attorney at the Center. “There is a vital need for a bigger shelter in Roswell that can accommodate more individuals and families. Unfortunately, the ordinance would leave the city with no options for locating a much needed transitional housing facility, leaving people to sleep outdoors. Each night without shelter brings new threats of violence, malnutrition, and sickness.”

The proposed ordinance would restrict any new or expanded homeless shelter to two industrial zones in Roswell and impose, among other excessive requirements, that any transitional housing be on a plot of at least two acres and have an eight-foot fence. Zoning maps for the City of Roswell show that there are no plots in the restricted zones that are large enough.

There has been an exponential rise in homelessness in Roswell over the last few years. Instead of addressing the severe lack of housing and shelter in Roswell, the city began enforcing anti-camping ordinances that criminalize homelessness without providing access to shelter.

Not only is there a severe shortage of space in Roswell’s homeless shelters for the large numbers of people who need them, there is no current facility in Roswell that can take families. If, for example, a family made up of a mother and teenage boys is lucky enough to find a shelter, the children must be separated from their mother.

The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in Roswell have mental and physical disabilities. Banning a new or expanded homeless shelter in the city violates the Fair Housing Act because it would discriminate against people with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to deny access to housing on the basis of disability. The equal protection clauses of the U.S. and New Mexico Constitutions also prohibit laws that discriminate against people with disabilities.

The City of Roswell’s continued efforts to criminalize homelessness by issuing citations to people who sleep or otherwise occupy public places also violate the First, Eighth, and 14th Amendments. This is particularly true when the city knowingly fails to provide alternative housing options for people who are homeless.

The letter from the Center explains: “Individuals in this country have significant liberty interests in standing on sidewalks and in other public places, and in traveling, moving, and associating with others and that liberty is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Punishing unhoused residents of Roswell for sleeping and possessing property outdoors violates the Eighth amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because these actions are unavoidable for people who are homeless.”

The Center urges the City Council to table the proposed amendments to the Roswell Zoning Ordinance and instead, work in collaboration with community members to set up a task force of stakeholders to find an appropriate location for permanent supportive housing for individuals experiencing homelessness.

“Transitional housing is proven to increase community health and safety,” said Hager. “Research shows that housing stability improves physical and behavioral health outcomes and reduces the use of crisis services such as emergency departments, hospitals, and jails for individuals experiencing homelessness. Adequate transitional housing would improve the health and safety of both people experiencing homelessness and the surrounding community.”

A copy of the letter the Center sent to the mayor and city council can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Letter_Roswell-City-Attny_2018_04_04.pdf                                                  

Hearing on proposed small loan regulations today

SANTA FE, NM—The New Mexico Financial Institutions Division will hear public comment in Santa Fe today on its proposed regulations for HB 347, which imposes a 175% interest rate cap on small loans. The law, passed during the 2017 New Mexico legislative session, also ensures that borrowers have the right to clear information about loan total costs, allows borrowers to develop credit history via payments made on small-dollar loans, and stipulates that all such loans have an initial maturity of 120 days and cannot be subject to a repayment plan smaller than four payments of loan principal and interest.

While the law and proposed regulations signal progress for fair loan terms, much more work remains to be done to ensure a more inclusive economy for all New Mexicans. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will urge the FID to revise the proposed regulations to improve disclosures and language regarding loan renewals so that all borrowers can understand the terms of their loans. The Center will also suggest the regulations include improved methods of data collection, expanded language accessibility, and greater protections for borrowers of refund anticipation loans.

The FID’s proposed regulations can be found here: www.rld.state.nm.us/financialinstitutions/

The Center’s comments on the proposed regulations can be found here: https://wp.me/a7pqlk-10H

The Center’s suggested changes to the proposed regulations can be found here: https://wp.me/a7pqlk-10I

WHAT:    
FID Hearing on proposed HB 347 regulations

WHEN:
Tuesday, April 3, 2018 at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE:  
New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department
Toney Anaya Building
Rio Grande Room on the 2nd Floor
2550 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, NM 87504

WHO:
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty
Prosperity Works
FID
Members of the public