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

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty responds to Trump’s proposed cuts to food assistance

ALBUQUERQUE, NM—The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty condemns President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal that slashes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by $213 billion. The proposal would replace SNAP food dollars for households receiving over $90 a month in benefits with a shelf stable box of foods. With the proposed 30 percent cut to the program over the next ten years, New Mexico would also stand to lose $207.9 million to the state economy.

The following quote can be attributed to New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty Managing Attorney Sovereign Hager:

“In New Mexico and in our country, we have a shared commitment to make sure that no one in our community goes hungry. It is shocking that this administration would propose a shameful budget that would literally take food off the table for our children and families. The cuts would have an outsized impact on our state where one in four New Mexicans participate in SNAP, including 40 percent of our kids. The cuts to these food benefits would not only mean that more New Mexicans won’t have enough to eat, they would also increase poverty and inequality and make it harder to succeed in today’s economy.

“By any measure, the SNAP program has been a huge success. It’s long been our first line of defense against hunger and has other positive economic and health outcomes. Research shows SNAP contributes positively to children’s brain development, and children who participate in SNAP are healthier, do better in school, and have increased earnings over time. SNAP also greatly contributes to our local economy through an exemplary public-private partnership. SNAP dollars are spent in local food retailers across New Mexico contributing hundreds of millions in economic activity.

“What’s more, the proposed replacement of electronic benefit cards with government-issued canned food strips people of the basic dignity of being able to buy their own groceries just like everybody else. Rather than shaming people, the government should be shoring up the SNAP program to make sure that our neighbors and families all have enough to eat. What this administration seems to be doing instead is suggesting that children, the elderly, and disabled people should fund tax cuts for the wealthy. Our members of Congress should reject this indefensible proposal.”

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

URGENT! Tell Steve Pearce to Protect Federal Food Assistance!

This Thursday Congress is expected to vote on the FY 2018 House Budget Resolution, which contains harsh cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps and other poverty reduction programs. SNAP has been instrumental in helping struggling families put food on the table. But the plan envisions a total SNAP cut of $150 billion (more than 20 percent) over ten years.

If implemented, the resolution would pull the rug out beneath 464,102 New Mexicans who participate in the program, including 199,286 children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, while the wealthiest Americans and profitable corporations would get huge tax cuts.

As New Mexico’s Most Important Anti-Hunger Program, SNAP:

  • Improves the Health of Young Children – Nearly half (46%) of New Mexican children under age four rely on SNAP benefits to eat.  SNAP is proven to increase health and learning outcomes in young children by supporting brain development through adequate nutrition.
  • Supports Working Families – SNAP supports working New Mexicans.  Half of New Mexico SNAP participants are in working families. SNAP is also a critical support as New Mexico continues to have an unemployment rate that is significantly higher than the national average.
  • Boosts New Mexico’s Economy – SNAP benefits pumped $693 million dollars in the New Mexico economy. Every dollar of federal SNAP benefits spent in New Mexico generates $1.70 in economic activity.

Please call Representative Steve Pearce TODAY and urge him to oppose the house budget reconciliation.

Representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Lujan are working hard to protect funding for SNAP. However, we need to make sure Representative Steve Pearce takes action to protect this critical program.

Call Representative Steve Pearce at his Washington D.C. office: (202) 225-2365.

Judge Holds NM Human Services Chief in Contempt

human-services-departmentOriginally published in the Albuquerque Journal September 28, 2016
https://www.abqjournal.com/854783/judge-finds-contempt-in-hsd-legal-case.html

SANTA FE – A federal judge held New Mexico’s top human services official in contempt Tuesday for failing to comply with court orders aimed at improving the administration of food aid and Medicaid health care benefits.

The contempt order against Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales upheld findings that the cabinet secretary did not diligently attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.

The judge, in his Tuesday order, also said objections filed by the agency were without merit and that the overall direction of the case was troubling.

“It remains clear that HSD and its officials have failed to exercise the leadership, control and managerial oversight to effectively come into compliance with the court orders,” Gonzales wrote.

However, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, which runs the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, took issue with at least part of the judge’s order.

“We strongly disagree with the judge’s characterization of the department, which doesn’t take into account all of our efforts to resolve long-standing issues – some of which are three decades old and occurred under several administrations,” HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison said. “However, we are pleased that the court has agreed with us to bring in an outside monitor to help resolve those issues.”

“Regardless, we are going to continue providing services to New Mexicans who need it the most,” he added.

The contempt finding accompanies the judge’s earlier approval of plans for a court-appointed special master to help ensure federally funded benefits are administered properly amid internal investigations by state and federal agencies into allegations that food aid applications were falsified.

The civil contempt order carries no additional sanctions or penalties.

Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and advocate for aid beneficiaries in the litigation, said the order sends a strong message nonetheless.

“I think this is a message that if things don’t work out with a special master and the state doesn’t come into compliance, the court will look to harsher remedies,” she said.

New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and there were more than 536,000 New Mexicans receiving food assistance benefits under SNAP, which was formerly known as food stamps, as of July, according to HSD. That figure was up by more than 7 percent – or nearly 36,000 people – from a year earlier.

The judge’s contempt order is the latest twist in a 1988 lawsuit. Earlier this year, a series of hearings were conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza, who had been tasked with monitoring compliance with a consent decree in the lawsuit and previous court orders.

Those hearings showed potential problems with the SNAP program, including testimony that state intake workers had been ordered to falsify income for some applicants, effectively denying them emergency benefits.

The testimony prompted criticism of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration by top legislative Democrats and party officials, including a call from Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the chairman of the interim Health and Human Services Committee, for Earnest to resign.

Earnest took over as HSD secretary – after Martinez picked him for the job – in December 2014 after the agency’s former secretary stepped down.

Read the Order from Judge Gonzales here.

Editorial: Shortchanging the Poor

Republished from the Las Vegas Optic. See the original column here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 6:30 pm (Updated: July 19, 6:42 pm)

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza has concluded that the New Mexico Human Services Department should have someone looking over its shoulder to help ensure that it complies with court orders and federal law in the administration of federally funded benefits.

According to The Associated Press, Garza is also recommending a contempt finding against the agency, which oversees the distribution of federal food aid and Medicaid health care benefits to the poor.

To be sure, those are merely proposals at this point; the department has 14 days to file its objections, and the department is already saying that it doesn’t agree with everything in the judge’s decision.

Still, it’s unfortunate — though not surprising — that such extreme measures are necessary to get the department to follow the law and to finally comply with court orders that have gone unfulfilled.

The harsh measures being recommended are not surprising because of the striking testimony presented during the court proceedings in the case.

“Caseworkers’ sworn testimony that they were instructed by managers to fraudulently alter applicant information has essentially not been refuted,” Garza said. According to The Associated Press, Garza also noted that managers overseeing supplemental nutrition benefits invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the proceedings.

The Human Services Department’s office of inspector general and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating that part of the case.

We don’t doubt that the state Human Services Department has a difficult job with tight deadlines and large caseloads.

But it’s also important to remember that the agency exists to serve as a safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents.

The aid this agency provides helps our state’s poor put food on the table for their families and get medical care for them. Playing games with that aid is unconscionable and wrong.

If it takes a special master looking over the agency’s shoulder to force it to do the right thing, then so be it.

According to The Associated Press, the special master would have expertise in determining eligibility for Medicaid and food aid. That individual would also be knowledgeable with the organizational and computer systems used to manage the state’s caseload.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which brought forth the federal lawsuit on behalf of aid beneficiaries, was pleased with Garza’s decision, which was issued Monday.

“The things we have been asking for are very simple,” attorney Sovereign Hager told AP. “Train your workers on what the law requires, make sure the IT system does what it’s supposed to, make sure notices are intelligible and make sense.”

That seems reasonable to us.

NM Human Services Department Found in Contempt, Federal Magistrate Recommends Special Master

SNAP Logo

Las Cruces, NM – On Friday, July 15, 2016, Federal Magistrate Carmen Garza entered proposed findings that the NM Human Services Department (HSD) be held in contempt for failure to comply with multiple Court Orders and federal law concerning administration of food and medical assistance to eligible families. Judge Garza found that “it is apparent that HSD and its officials have not exhibited the leadership, oversight, or coordination necessary to implement the Court Orders.” Judge recommended the appointment of a Special Master with expertise in food and medical assistance be appointed to facilitate HSD’s compliance with federal law and Court Orders.

The Order comes after three days of evidentiary hearings about HSD’s failure to provide food and medical assistance to families as required by federal law. Judge Garza noted numerous violations of federal law and Court Orders by HSD, finding that worker trainings and notices to families applying for food and medical assistance are “replete with repeated mistakes” and that HSD had not brought state regulations and policies into compliance with federal law. Nor could HSD tell the Court when compliance would be achieved. The Court further noted that testimony by HSD employees that HSD staff have been altering application in order to deny eligible applicants emergency food benefits and improve HSD’s timeliness statistics “was essentially not refuted.”
In entering a finding that the Secretary Brent Earnest should be held in Contempt, Judge Garza noted the Department’s recent willingness to seek expert assistance, stating “While the Court appreciates this acknowledgement, the Court is troubled it took over thirty hours of status conferences, over five hundred pages of joint status reports submitted to the Court, three days of evidentiary hearings on its Order to Show Cause, and testimony by HSD employees alleging fraud on the part of HSD, to which high level officials responded by pleading the fifth, for Defendant to discuss making these types of changes. For the question before the Court, Defendant’s realization has come entirely too late.”

As a remedy for contempt, Judge Garza recommends that the Court appoint and supervise a Special Master to act as a full time advisor and consultant to HSD. The Special Master will have expertise in food and medical assistance programs and will report to the Court on the extent of the Department’s compliance.

Judge Garza stated “Defendant’s inability to fully bring his application processing practices into compliance with the Court Orders has profound effects on the citizens of New Mexico. Indeed, when an eligible SNAP or Medicaid applicant is denied or delayed in receiving benefits, that individual loses benefits he or she may rely on to eat, feed his or her children, or to receive essential medical coverage . . . It is essential for this Court to acknowledge the need for these services to be effectively, efficiently and properly rendered to those who are eligible in this state.”

Attorneys at the Center and Law and Poverty, along with co-counsel Daniel Yohalem and Jane Yohalem, represent the class of plaintiff applicants for food and medical assistance in the case. Gail Evans, Legal Director at the NM Center on Law and Poverty stated, “We are pleased that the Court will appoint and supervise an expert to oversee HSD’s compliance with federal law in providing food and medical assistance. The Department needs expert assistance with important changes that will help the state provide benefits accurately and efficiently. This includes IT changes, the creation of a manual and effective training for state workers and comprehensible notices to families participating in the programs. We look forward to working with the special master to bring the Department into compliance with the law.”

For more information contact Gail Evans at (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5299 or Sovereign Hager (505) 417-2084.

Read the full press release here.

Read Justice Garza’s recommendation here: Part 1 Part 2

Op-ed: HSD needs to do its work more efficiently

Republished from the Albuquerque Journal. See the original guest column here.

By Ruth Hoffman / Lutheran Advocacy Ministry-NM
originally published Thursday, June 9th, 2016 at 12:02am

Here in New Mexico, we have long struggled with taking care of our most vulnerable families. Recent reports that state workers at the Human Services Department were being pressured into denying emergency SNAP (food stamps) to hungry people and families are very disturbing. For over two decades, a federal court has found HSD’s track record for basic processing of medical and food assistance benefits to be in violation of federal law.

Government is one of the ways that we can work together to address the needs of our communities, and it can make a positive difference in people’s lives. But when government doesn’t work or fails to do its job, it can cause a lot of pain. Just ask a family of four in Hobbs. State workers left them without Medicaid coverage for seven months because HSD had failed to send a renewal notice or to check information the family had already given them.

Or an elderly man from Alamogordo with no income who had his SNAP assistance terminated last August because state workers forgot to send him a legally required notice. After going three weeks without food assistance, his benefits were reinstated, but only after the man went to an Income Support Division office to submit a new application for food assistance.

Whether it involves Medicaid or SNAP, these stories and others point to an unacceptable problem at HSD of improperly denying families needed services and failing to notify recipients about delays. Seniors and low-income families are on their own to figure out how to resolve these issues. Indeed, according to a study by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, HSD failed to send Medicaid clients the required renewal forms 50 percent of the time. Over 65 percent of the time, they failed to alert families about delays in their SNAP applications or about ways to resolve the delays.

As the government agency charged with assisting low-income people, families and seniors, the Human Services Department should implement common-sense steps to improve efficiency and save money. This can be done by eliminating requests for unnecessary documents, making client notices more accurate and understandable, and automating Medicaid renewals.

Additionally, it is critical that HSD provide much better job training, support and resources for the state workers who determine eligibility for badly needed assistance. Creating a comprehensive, accurate online worker manual would help workers process cases efficiently and as required by law.

We believe that we are called to do everything in our power to serve our neighbors. While faith communities throughout our state serve and help people living in poverty and experiencing hunger every day, they can’t do all that is needed and must be done. Our government has a role to play, and the agencies of our government must carry out that role by implementing a benefits system which is efficient and does its best to not put up barriers to accessing the assistance that eligible low-income New Mexicans need.

We know that eligible families are trying to get back on their feet; they are trying to do the right thing. We should expect nothing less from state leaders. Creating a more efficient benefits system won’t solve everything, but it can make a big difference in the lives of families and the people who most need help.