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.

Advocate Training by Leading Public Benefits Expert in Albuquerque on February 15

Legal service advocates are invited to join the NM Center on Law and Poverty for a training by leading public benefits law expert David Super.

The training will take place on February 15, 2016, from 9am to 1 pm at the NM Center on Law and Poverty at 924 Park Ave, Suite C Albuquerque, NM 87102.

Professor SuperDavid Super, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, is a leading expert on public benefits law, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). His current research focuses on constitutional law, legislation (including the federal budget), local government law, and public welfare law. He teaches these subjects as well as civil procedure, contracts, evidence, property, torts, and administrative law. Before entering academia, he was the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and worked for the National Health Law Program and Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. And, before attending Harvard Law School, he was a community organizer. (Sound familiar?) Peter Edelman once described David as having “a burning commitment to social justice … (and) a profound intellectual depth” (Abrar Qadir, New Professor, Poverty Law Expert, a “Super” Addition, Georgetown Law Weekly, Oct. 18, 2011). A frequent Clearinghouse Review contributor and constant source of advice and support for the editorial team, David wrote two articles for the Review’s 2012 special issue on hunger and food insecurity: Preventing Terminations of SNAP When States Fail to Recertify Households on Time and Protecting Households as States Stagger SNAP Issuance. Find the articles on the Clearinghouse Review.

The 15th is Presidents’ Day and we know many offices will be closed. This is the only date that worked with Professor Super’s schedule, as he is traveling in the area. We hope that at least some of you can join us for this opportunity and chance to connect on our public benefits work!

Please RSVP to Veronica Rosales at veronica@nmpovertylaw.org if you will attend.

National Commission releases report on hunger to Congress

hunger commission logo On Monday, January 4th, the bi-partisan Commission on Hunger issued its final report on the state of hunger in America. Created by Congress in 2014 to investigate and recommend strategies to reduce hunger, the Commission traveled around the nation, meeting with policymakers, advocacy organization, and communities.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty was invited by the Commission to provide testimony about food insecurity in New Mexico because of our expertise in food assistance programs. The information we provided helped Congresswoman Lujan-Grisham prepare an exchange on New Mexico’s attempt to impose SNAP work requirements in a November 2015 hearing. See the video here:
https://www.facebook.com/RepLujanGrisham/videos/744880462322142/

Our funding partner MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national voice in anti-hunger advocacy, also testified to the Commission. MAZON’s recommendations were adopted by the Commission and address strategies for ending hunger for veterans, active military, and their families.

We agree with the Commission’s findings that “Hunger is a significant problem that has serious, health, education and workforce consequences for our nation.” We hope that Congress will use these recommendations to advance anti-hunger efforts in America, so that every family will be able to put food on their table.

You can read the full report here: https://hungercommission.rti.org/