Over 27,000 New Mexicans could lose food assistance due to Trump administration rule

ALBUQUERQUE—Federal food assistance was created to increase nutrition levels and eliminate hunger. However, the Trump administration published a final rule yesterday that threatens food assistance for more than 27,255 New Mexicans and 755,000 low-income adults nationwide. The rule will go into effect on April 1, 2020.

Federal law already required that states limit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility to just three months out of every three years for unemployed and underemployed adults without dependent children unless they can document 20 hours of work a week. The Trump administration rule makes the requirement even harsher by preventing many states from waiving these draconian time limits in areas with high unemployment.

“There is absolutely no excuse for anyone in the richest country in the world to ever go hungry,” said Sovereign Hager, legal director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “There has always been bipartisan support for protecting food assistance. The Trump administration chose to sidestep Congress, which rejected these cuts in the 2018 Farm Bill, and push cuts through by regulation.

“We’re proud to be from a state that opposed the rule,” said Teague González, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Now, more than ever, it’s important New Mexico quickly institute a strong plan for more employment and training programs to mitigate the harmful impact of this rule. If it does not, thousands of people will be locked out of food assistance for up to three years.”

New Mexico has some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the United States and implemented a statewide waiver of the time limits for decades because the state’s unemployment levels have been more than 20 percent above the national average. But counties like Catron, Cibola, McKinley, Mora, Sierra, Taos, and Torrance—with unemployment rates over seven percent—will no longer qualify for a waiver. The same would be true for most Native American communities in the state.

There is no evidence that proposals to take food assistance away from people who do not meet new, expanded work requirements increases employment or earnings. However, data from states that implemented time limits show that the vast majority of adults simply lost SNAP benefits without finding employment. 

The people who receive food assistance in New Mexico who can work, do work; 46 percent are in working families. Others have disabilities, are elderly, or simply cannot find work. The adults affected are some of the lowest income of all SNAP participants. USDA data shows that those likely to be cut off by the time limit have an average monthly income of about 17 percent of the poverty line.

“The people impacted by this rule have been systematically disenfranchised by our economic system and face real barriers to maintaining and documenting full time employment,” said González. “Taking away basic food assistance only makes people hungry and does not help anyone find a job. The government should instead be implementing what we know helps people find work, and that’s individualized job training, a fair minimum wage, affordable childcare and housing.” 

SNAP cuts will hurt grocers and New Mexico’s economy. SNAP benefits are spent at more than 1,588 authorized retailers in New Mexico, including grocers and local food retailers around the state. About $693 million of SNAP benefits were redeemed in New Mexico in 2016. The average New Mexico SNAP benefit in FY 2017 was $121. When multiplied by the 27,244 people who could lose benefits under the proposed rule, up to $3,296,524 federal dollars could leave the state.

SNAP cuts will also mean an increase in public healthcare costs for New Mexico. A study published by the American Medical Association found that on average SNAP participation lowers an individual’s health care expenditures by approximately $1,447 per year.

Court asked to order HSD to implement plan to remove barriers to food and medical assistance  

HSD and Center on Law and Poverty jointly drafted the court approved corrective action plan the department now refuses to adopt  

LAS CRUCES—Families continue to go without food and medical assistance they are eligible for because the New Mexico Human Services Department has failed to implement major elements of a corrective action plan the department itself helped draft and the court approved and mandated. In a motion filed yesterday evening on behalf of plaintiffs in the lawsuit Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. David Scrase, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty asked a U.S. District Court to order HSD to comply with the plan, set deadlines, share information, and meet with plaintiffs.

“No family should have to go hungry or be without health coverage, but that’s exactly what’s happening in New Mexico,” said Teague Gonzalez, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “We were encouraged by the plan we developed with HSD, but the department has stopped cooperating and is refusing to set deadlines and fix long standing problems. HSD needs to implement the plan they agreed to immediately.”

While HSD has made some progress, serious failures continue. In the motion, the Center charges that HSD has refused to implement a corrective action plan and court ordered changes including: 

  • Improving its notoriously faulty IT system so families with immigrant members are not illegally denied benefits or required to provide documents that are not necessary to get benefits for eligible family members; 
  • Fixing the language in form notices so they explain how families can prove their eligibility to maintain their food and medical assistance and clearly understand why they are denied benefits; and
  • Implementing basic eligibility content into a worker manual, improve regulations and worker training. 

The court mandated a review of HSD case files that was completed in February 2019. In this audit, the Center found tremendous errors in 67 percent of all cases involving immigrant families. Of these, 60 percent resulted in a delay of one month or more receiving assistance.

In 2016, the court held former HSD Secretary Brent Earnest in contempt for failing to remove systemic barriers to assistance for eligible families applying for food and Medicaid assistance and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department.

Judge Kenneth Gonzales set a series of deadlines in April 2018 for HSD compliance with court ordered reforms. Under new HSD Secretary David Scrase, plaintiffs and HSD jointly drafted, and agreed upon, a corrective action plan that the court approved in July 2019. However, HSD hired a new acting general counsel in August 2019 and collaboration has halted.

The long-running Hatten-Gonzales lawsuit was originally filed in 1989. While some progress has been made, HSD has never satisfactorily addressed entrenched problems in administering food and medical assistance. In 2016, HSD whistleblowers testified that there was a statewide policy of falsifying information on emergency benefits applications so the agency could pass federal audits and deadlines. This illegal policy resulted in thousands of New Mexican families going without the food assistance they needed.

There will be a status conference on the state’s compliance with the multiple court orders to remove barriers to food and medical assistance for eligible families tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces before Judge Kenneth Gonzales.

The court motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-earnest-motion-to-enforce-judgment-2019-11-19/

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty report on its case review can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/nmclp-report-on-hsd-case-review-2019-02-25-redacted/

The jointly developed corrective action plan can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/hatten-gonzales-v-scrace-joint-motion-to-approve-two-corrective-action-plans-2019-07-10/