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.

Center files suit to block additional work requirements for SNAP recipients

SNAP LogoOn January 27, the Center filed suit against the New Mexico Human Services Department regarding the state’s imposition of additional work requirements for 17,500 struggling SNAP recipients.

The New Mexico Human Services Department recently implemented new SNAP eligibility requirements for childless adults ages 18 to 50. Effective on January 1, 2016, the new requirements limit individuals to just three months of SNAP assistance if they cannot find a job that offers 20 hours of work a week or a qualifying job training program, regardless of how hard they are looking for work or if applicable work training is even available. Read more about the importance of SNAP for New Mexico communities here. (link to Defeating Hunger project page).

The Center on Law and Poverty filed suit against the Department to oppose these requirements. Our complaint demonstrates how the state’s administration of the eligibility requirements and the harsh new time limit violate federal law. We are asking the federal court to enjoin the Human Services Department from proceeding with these requirements because they conflict with federal law, adults haven’t received proper notice about them, and workers haven’t been properly trained on the requirements.

You can read more about our lawsuit in the Albuquerque Journal and the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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/

Human Services Department withdraws new hurdles to food assistance – for now…

Last week, the Human Services Department withdrew proposed changes to work requirements for food assistance, conceding that the Department could not legally implement the new rules.

This about-face was a direct result of our lawsuit challenging the illegal process that the state used to implement the new requirements. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Southwest Organizing Project, along with New Mexicans in need of food assistance, filed this suit on October 31st. Our case outlined how the Department failed to follow proper procedure when it did not make the full proposal available for public review. Additionally, the information that was released contained inaccurate descriptions of the rule changes and contradictory statements about how a person can fulfill the requirements, making it impossible for New Mexicans to comply.

A Santa Fe District Court judge found merit with the concerns we voiced and issued a temporary restraining order, meaning that the proposed changes would not go into effect until a full hearing could be held. Just hours before that hearing, Department attorneys advised the Center and SWOP that the state was withdrawing the proposal. On the same day, we learned that Human Services Department Secretary Sidonie Squier had resigned.

We believe the Human Services Department intends to reissue the new regulations, which include imposing harsh penalties on those who cannot meet the requirements: adults who do not understand and follow the rules could lose access to food assistance for the next 3 years, and other families could lose benefits for up to one year, devastating punishments for those struggling to eke out a living. We will continue to watch for these policy changes in order to defend this vital safety net.